Thursday, November 10, 2016

Lithuania: Restoration Work at Žiežmariai Wooden Synagogue has Begun

Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2016.
Žiežmariai, Lithuania. historical sign at synagogue. This was posted outside, but now it is inside. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2016
Lithuania: Restoration Work at Žiežmariai Wooden Synagogue has Begun - Hopes are for a Wooden Synagogues Museum
by Samuel D. Gruber
I was recently in Lithuania to participate in a small workshop organized by the Centre for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews to discuss the state of Jewish heritage sites in Lithuania, and the best ways to tie these together into a coherent and accessible Jewish heritage route (or routes). This follows the formal establishment of a Jewish Cultural Route Association in December, 2015, and the recent launch of a Discover Jewish Lithuanian app. The Association includes the municipalities of Ukmergė and Kėdainiai, the regional administration of the Joniškis district, the Centre for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews and the Association of Lithuanian Museums. more partners are expected to join. Martynas Uzpelkis, representing the Jewish Community of Lithuania, made a presentation at the workshop, about Community initiatives, though at this stage the Community is not as involved in the Jewish Cultural Route as I hope they will be. Since creating the position of Specialist for Heritage Preservation three years ago, the Community has been much more pro-active in cultural heritage site issues, especially outside of Vilnius.

The two days of meetings included one day visiting sites (in the pouring rain) and one day in discussion. There were many topics covered - but foremost were the issues of site conservation,  preservation, interpretation and presentation, and how to create an local and international tourism infrastructure that can assist and support visitation of sites and appreciation of Lithuanian Jewish history, as well as broadening understanding of Judaism as a religion and culture.

Presently, most efforts to protect and preserve Jewish heritage sites outside of Vilnius and Kaunus are local initiatives, though often in cooperation with the Jewish Community of Lithuania. Those taking the lead are sometimes flying blind - they have the nest of intentions but have little guidance and few local precedents to learn from. Local political leaders - such as the mayor of Žiežmariai - have sometimes stepped out in front of their constituencies to take responsibility for Jewish sites. They need our encouragement, advice and support. The Žiežmariai synagogue (or beit midrash) owned by the Jewish Community of Lithuania, and managed by the Kaisiadorys District Municipality Administration.

Last fall, I reported on the restoration of the wooden synagogue of Pakruojis, which was just about to begin. Happily, this work is well underway, and the ongoing restoration and conversion of the building into a children's library has made some remarkable discoveries of previous hidden original features, including fragments of painting on boards from the wooden ceiling. 

Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. Interior wall showing original log construction. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2016.
Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. Interior wall showing original construction. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2016.
In May 2016, the restoration of the wooden synagogue of Žiežmariai had begun. Three weeks ago we had the opportunity to visit the work and talk with the Mayor Vytenis Tomkus and the architect.  We were lucky to have Vladimir Levin from the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem with us, since Valdimir had studied the building for the inventory and publication Synagogues of Lithuania.  His advice on the restoration was especially valuable to the local architect. Both Vladimir and I stressed that the Žiežmariai synagogue's greatest value was its authenticity, and that extreme effort was worth taking to protect and preserve every bit of original fabric in the building as possible. 

The goal of the project should not be to fully restore the building, but to protect it and bring it to a level (new roof, water handling envelope, mechanical systems, etc.) to allow it to safely function as an exhibition and activity center. In this day when many other localities (such as Bilgorai, Poland) are eager to erect recreations of wooden synagogues the appeal of Žiežmariai must be its claim as the "real thing".  

Žiežmariai is one of the latest wooden synagogues to be built, probably rebuilt around 1918. It  also, however, one of nearly a wooden dozen survivors that best preserves the most original features (you can read a full description of the building below). Importantly, the town of Žiežmariai lies on the much-traveled route between Lithuania's two major cities - Vilnius and Kaunus - so that that once restored the building will easily accessible to visitors. There are also other related Jewish sites in the vicinity. 

The synagogue also has meaning as a Holocaust site - since it was used as a camp for Jewish slave laborers.

Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. The lower parts of the bimah columns have may layers of original paint, the latest in a faux-marble patter. . Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2016.
Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. Interior view showing one (left) of two surviving original bimah columns. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2016.
Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. Newly fashioned bimah columns to replace those missing. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2016.
Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. View of womens' gallery. Photo:Sergey Kravtsov, 2004 - Center for Jewish Art Archives
Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. Restoration of womens' gallery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. Traces of original wall decoration, Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Žiežmariai, Lithuania. Synagogue. Traces of original wall decoration, Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016

Following is a detailed description of the Žiežmariai synagogue or beit midrash adapted from Synagogues in Lithuania vol 2, N-Z  (Vilnius, 2012), 408-413, written by Sergey Kravtsov, Giedrė Mickūnaitė, and Vladimir Levin:
The beit midrash was probably built in the second half of the 19th century, and must have been severely damaged in the fire of 1918. It is located to the southeast of the central town square, in the midst of the quarter behind Vilniaus Street (once the main thoroughfare of the town), facing a large unpaved square, some 100 m northeast of the Church of Jacob the Apostle.

The exterior of the wooden beit midrash shows clearly the interior division into a prayer hall on the southeast and the vestibule with women’s section above it in the northwest. The building has retained its form as seen on photographs from the 1930s.

The beit midrash is a milled wood log house, built on a masonry foundation. It has a rectangular plan, 22.57 by 17.19 m, with its shorter sides facing southeast and northwest. Its maximal height is 9.65 m. The lofty southeastern part of the building housed a prayer hall.. The northwestern part includes a central vestibule and two chambers on either side on the ground floor, and a women’s section on the first floor. An extension with a staircase to the women’s section is adjacent to the western corner of the building with a door opening on its southeastern side. The entire log structure is spanned with a hipped roof in a truss construction.

The main entrance to the building is cut through the center of the northwestern façade, where traces of a demolished exterior lobby are still evident. The windows of the two-storey part of the building are rectangular. Another door leading directly to the prayer hall is located on the northeastern façade.
The prayer hall  with 18 windows (one of them is combined with a door) is nearly square; it measures 13.86 m from southeast to northwest and 15.00 m from northeast to southwest; it is 5.13 m high. The ceiling of the prayer hall is supported by two heavy longitudinal beams, which rest on the division wall of the women’s section, the southeastern wall of the hall and the central pillars. Originally, the ceiling of the prayer hall was planked; some planks remain in the eastern corner, in very poor condition. The interior of the building was originally lathed, plastered, and whitewashed, though much of the plaster is missing. Most of the interior adornments are lost, although the wooden patera in the ceiling above the bimah and the capitals of the central pillars still exist (Fig. 10); these elements are painted white, blue and gold. A fragment of painted frieze with a repeated stencil rose design in between a broad blue band and red dotted line is traceable on the northwestern wall. The Torah ark stood at the center of the southeastern wall, in the wide pier between the central windows.

A painted plaster relief showing a palmetto held in what looks like a triangular vase, was situated above the ark and is still visible. The entrance to the prayer hall is located in the center of the northwestern wall, above which, in the interior, there are fifteen segment-headed openings connecting the hall to the women’s section. There are six round-headed windows on each of the southeastern and southwestern sides of the prayer hall, and five such windows and a round-headed door combined with a window in the northeastern wall. The frames of all the openings were painted gold. In general, the forms and colors of the interior decoration hint at Neo-Classicist aesthetics, while the palmetto may be inspired by Lithuanian folk motifs.

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