Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Worrying News about Wooden Synagogue in Lithuania

In his Jewish Art & Monuments blog, Sam Gruber has published worrying news about the deteriorating condition of the former wooden synagogue in Pakruojis, Lithuania.

The synagogue -- one of the most impressive of the dozen or so surviving wooden synagogues in Lithuania -- was already in bad shape when I visited there in 2006. Sam has posted a slide show of pictures I took at the time.

The synagogue dates from the very early 19th century and is the oldest surviving wooden synagogue in Lithuania. Old pictures show that it once had an ornate interior, with a richly carved Ark and central bimah. The walls and ceiling bore colorful paintings. including one of a locomotive pulling a train. Painted fruit trees, storks, and flowers decorated the ceiling. One painting depicted the messianic image of the Leviathan swallowing its tail; its curved body surrounded a rendition of a t house with potted shrubs out front and three smoking chimneys. The synagogue is still recognizable by its double-mansard roof, but it was used as a cinema and sports hall in the 1950s. When I saw it, the windows were boarded up, the walls were sagging and outer planking had buckled in some places.

Recently, wooden planking as been removed from one wall and, as Sergey Kravstov of the Center for Jewish Art notes, “there are other severe problems, mainly the danger of fire, since the structure is abandoned, and is being frequently visited by homeless.” (Sergey's virtual reconstruction of the synagogue can be seen on the Center for Jewish Art web site HERE.)

These wooden synagogues are remarkable survivors -- I would say some of the most precious Jewish heritage sites in Europe. They are all that is left to remind us of the phenomenally ornate wooden synagogues, dating back centuries, that were destroyed by the Nazis.

The artist Murray Zimiles has created an unforgettable series of works based on the destruction of these synagogues.

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