Monday, February 3, 2014

Lithuania: Can the Early 19th-Century Synagogue of Žemaičių Naumiestis be Saved From Demolition?

Žemaičių Naumiestis, Lithuania. The former synagogue, view from east. Photo: Vladimir Levin, 2007. Center for Jewish Art Archives

Lithuania: Early 19th-Century Synagogue of Žemaičių Naumiestis May Be Demolished

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM)  The group Jews in East Prussia reports that a permit has been granted by local authorities for the demolition of the former the former synagogue of Žemaičių Naumiestis (Neishtot-Tavrig in Yiddish), a town in Klaipėda county, Šilutė district municipality, located in western Lithuania between Klaipėda and Kaliningrad Oblast.  The synagogue was used as a cinema under Communism.  It was apparently empty even a decade ago, but still was in adequate condition.  It is now empty and neglected. It is not owned by any Jewish community, nor has it apparently been claimed.  It is not listed as a historic monument.

 Žemaičių Naumiestis, Lithuania. The former synagogue, view from Googlearth (accessed Feb. 3, 2014)

The town was once multicultural and religious center, though now it is homogenous in its make-up.  The architectural heritage of the town - of which the former synagogue is an important part, still reflects its past diversity. In addition to the synagogue, built in 1816, there

Jews settled in the town in the 17th century, and by the late 19th-century the town had a substantial Jewish population - almost 60% of residents, many of whom were involved in cross-border trade with East Prussia. 
The synagogue dates from the early 19th-century and was the center of a substantial Jewish community before the Holocaust.  The building was substantially damaged in World War I, when much of the town was burned.  After rebuilding ca. 1919, when it received a new roof, it was the scene of the deportation of local Jews to execution and labor camps in 1941.  The building's history and architecture (and that of the nearby wooden Beth Midrash) are extensively documented in Synagogues in Lithuania, Vol II(2012).

"With the Nazi occupation, a ghetto was established in Žemaičių Naumiestis in early July 1941. On July 19 the Jewish men were concentrated in the shulhoyf. Those able to work were sent to the labor camp in Heydekrug (Šilutė), while the others were murdered in Šiaudvičiai. The women and children were murdered there on September 25, 1941." (from Synagogues of Lithuania, Vol ii, p. 394)

A plaque was installed on the synagogue in the 1990s.  The Lithuanian text in translation reads: "HERE UNTIL JUNE 22, 1941 WAS SYNAGOGUE WHICH WAS LED BY THE WORLD FAMOUS RABBI J. M. LESINAS (Rabbi Lesin in Yiddish)"

The synagogue building has been abandoned for many years, and the roof is near collapse.  While this eminent danger has apparently triggered the call for demolition, there does not appear to have been discussion of alternate measures to protect the structure - even as a preserved ruin. 

 Žemaičių Naumiestis, Lithuania. The former synagogue, view from east. Photo: Vladimir Levin, 2007. Center for Jewish Art Archives
The group Jews in East Prussia has vowed on their web site and Facebook page to save the building They propose getting an architect to check the stability of the walls and to arrange the repair of the roof to fix the roof and then to find an investor for any use "just to keep the building and to have a spot, where the history of the Jewish Community can be decently honored and preserved." Looking at recent pictures, it looks like the roof would have to be entirely replaced, and this would be difficult to fund without a per-determined use. 

Any plan would require finding not only funds for the restoration, but also a new purpose for the building.  In some other Lithuanian towns local museums have utilized former synagogue buildings.  This is a small town, however, clearly with limited resources. 

Given what I now know of the situation, and my experience from other sites, I propose consideration of a different solution; that the damaged and dangerous roof of the synagogue should be removed entirely (I am not sure if this is the remains of the roof added ca. 1929, or a replacement roof from the Communist period) and that the walls, with their large windows, should then be conserved as a memorial ruin.  In time, it would be good to see this integrated into a larger Lithuania Jewish Heritage Memorial route, similar to those beign developed in Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere.  Presently, most of the attention to Jewish history and culture in Lithuania is focused in Vilnius, and is not dispersed thorough the country, where a number of wooden and masonry synagogue survive (for how long?), and where there are many cemeteries with Holocaust memorials.

Žemaičių Naumiestis, Lithuania. Former synagogue, interior: the prayer hall, view towards
southeast. Photo: Vladimir Levin, 2007. CJA Archives

The Žemaičių Naumiestis synagogue could be established as a monument in a memorial park setting, similar to what has recently been done in Nowy Korczyn, Poland, which, in the words of Ruth Ellen Gruber, was" long a "poster child" for a ruined synagogue that no-one knew what to do with," and Dzialoszyce, Poland.  Both these projects were described (with photos) earlier this year on  One can also see an early and more limited version of this type of preservation in Tarnow, Poland, where the masonry bimah of the Great Synagogue has long been preserved in a memorial setting since the early 1990s.  In Žemaičių Naumiestis, where other aspects of the Jewish religious compound still survive, it is important to preserve, at the very least, the massing of the synagogue building. 

Some type of impermeable ledge can be constructed atop the walls to prevent excessive water penetration into the masonry from above, and a slightly projecting ledge can also help preserve - at least for many years - much of surviving stucco on the walls.  This is will cost money - more than the cost of demolition but much less than the cost of a new roof, or of any other type of restoration.  At the same time, the potential for conservation the nearby wooden Beth Midrash should be explored. 

If authorities allow time for consideration, a proposal for transformation of the building can be prepared and presented.

Žemaičių Naumiestis, Lithuania. The synagogue during restoration of ca. 1929, view from north. Photo: Collection  of Dr. Benjamin E. Lesin, from Synagogues of Lithuania. Vol. II, p. 398)

 Žemaičių Naumiestis, Lithuania.  Map showing relationship of synagogue to Catholic and Protestant churches.  From Synagogues of Lithuania, Vol II., p 393.

The Žemaičių Naumiestis synagogue offers special opportunities because of its location in the town.  The building can be preserved and interpreted on several levels.  

First, it is a memorial to the history of the Jews of the town, and their fate in the Holocaust.  The architecture of the building allows its preservation as a monument - seen from the outside, and as a memorial when viewed from within.  Informative historical signage can be attached to the inner walls, in open-air a gallery like setting (new and lasting materials now exist to allow higher attractive weather proof signboard).  

The synagogue interiors could include benches for quiet contemplation, but could also (in good weather) be set up with movable chairs or benches for performances of all kinds.  Such enclosed performance spaces - with no historical associations - are known elsewhere, and the open air room as an enclosed memorial has been used effectively for several recent  Holocaust memorials - notably the Umschlagplatz Memorial in Warsaw, and the Little Camp Memorial in Buchenwald.  To me, using the extant walls of the synagogue would be even more effective.
 Žemaičių Naumiestis, Lithuania. The former Beth Midrash, located behind the synagogue, view from west.  Photo: Aistė Viršulytė, 2007. SLC Archives

The synagogue can also serve as the hub for investigation of the Jewish past of the region, including cemeteries in Žemaičių Naumiestis, and a retracing of the "Jewish geography" of the town and region. 

Importantly, the synagogue can be linked to other religious buildings in the town recount its multi-cultural history, a lesson very important in 21st-century Europe.  Within walking distance of the 1816 masonry synagogue is the wooden Catholic St. Michael Church (1782), a stone Protestant church (1842).


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Unknown said...

Having continued further research, I realized I had to delete my previous comments. One things remains the same, thank you for posting this article. I am very much interested in learning more about the history of this synagogue and the people who were from this area. Any information would be greatly appreciated.