Lithuania’s last wooden synagogues in danger


A handful of wooden synagogues, among the last vestiges of Lithuania’s thriving pre-World War II Jewish culture, are crumbling because of a lack of money and support.

Lithuania has barely more than a dozen wooden synagogues remaining, dating between the late 19th century and the 1930s.

They are unused today and falling apart, victims in part of abuse and neglect during the Soviet era.

“Their state of disrepair struck me,” said Gilles Vuillard, a Lithuania-based French artist who has depicted them in his work over the past few years. “Most often people didn’t even know where they were located anymore, yet they are witness to a unique cultural heritage.”

Lithuania’s pre-war Jewish population was approximately 210,000. Of that, an estimated 195,000, or more than 90 percent, were murdered by the Nazis following their invasion of the Baltics in June 1941.

Most of the small number who survived the Holocaust moved to Israel after the war.

Most Jews in Lithuania today arrived after 1945 and have little to no historical connection to the wooden synagogues.

In addition, soon after the Soviets kicked the Nazis out of Lithuania in 1944, the country officially became atheist, in line with policy across the entire Soviet empire.

German soldiers and Lithuanian civilians watch as a wooden Lithuanian synagogue burns in July 1941.

A wooden Lithuanian synagogue is burned by German soldiers in July 1941.

Many of the wooden synagogues were used for storage or simply abandoned, according to Agence France-Presse.

After Lithuanian independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the synagogues were returned to country’s small post-war Jewish community following a 1992 law, the wire service added.

Lithuania’s Jewish heritage is believed to date back more than 1,000 years.

The first wooden synagogues appeared in Lithuania around the second half of the 17th century.

“Wood was the cheapest material around,” said Maria Rupeikiene, an architect and author of several papers on the Jewish heritage.

A shortage of money and worshippers means the synagogues are closed and run down. The oldest, in the northern city of Pakruojis, was damaged in a fire in 2009.

“The most important thing is to preserve them,” said Faina Kukliansky, lawyer and interim president of the Jewish community. “One option is to use them as libraries.

“Some municipalities have agreed to lease the synagogues for 99 years for their purposes, but it’s difficult because the buildings are in a very bad state.”

(Top: A dilapidated Jewish synagogue in Alanta, Lithuania. Photo credit: Agence France-Presse.)


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