The Great Synagogue of Ludza, Latvia -- the oldest surviving synagogue in the country -- is currently undergoing renovation that will transform it into a museum. Ilya Lensky, of the Jews in Latvia Museum in Riga, has sent us this update, along with recent pictures by Yuri Dojc.
The synagogue was granted the status of national monument in November 2013, and preliminary work on the restoration project started at that time. The funding was obtained from the EEA Grants/Norway Grants program, and Dr. Pēteris Blūms, one of Latvia's leading art historians and wooden architecture specialists, was chosen as the supervising architect for the restoration. Restoration is slated to be completed by early 2016.
The main sanctuary of the building (see photo above) will be used as an exhibition hall, with some permanent exhibits on Judaism and on the building itself.
On the ground floor there will be an exhibition dedicated to the Latvian-Israeli documentary film director Herz Frank and his father, the pre-World War II Ludza photographer Wulf Frank. The former women's gallery will house a permanent exhibition on the history of the Ludza Jewish community, dating back to 18th century, and the Holocaust.
Before the Holocaust Ludza was home to some 1,518 Jews, who made up about 27% of the population. Seven synagogues of different types served the community. The Great Synagogue was the only one to survive World War II and the Soviet era relatively intact. During the Holocaust, in the summer and fall of 1941, it was part of the short-lived "ghetto;" then, in 1942, local Roma people were concentrated in the building before their execution. Later, it was used as a car repair workshop.
After the Holocaust a remnant Jewish community of about 100-150 people remained in the town. They used the synagogue regularly until the early 1970s and sporadically until early 1990s, when most of the Jews left for Israel or other destinations. Currently only about 15 still live in Ludza, most of them elderly.
The Great Synagogue was constructed in 1800-1801, and has been remodeled several times. Initially it was a wooden building, but probably in early 20th century it was covered with bricks.
There is no information on the original interior design of the synagogue, but an inner cupola was installed around the early 20th century.
During the Nazi occupation one of the walls was partially destroyed, but it was restored after the WWII. The current interior design and furnishing, including the Ark, probably date to post-war times -- the restoration work should reveal more precise information. During the 1990s the synagogue became derelict, and homeless people found shelter there. Due to lack of maintenance, the wooden structures of the synagogue, standing close on the shore of the lake, were subject to spring floods and started to rot. A new roof was installed in the early 2000s; funding for this was raised by several former residents of the city.
The building was nationalized in 1940 by the Soviets and its restitution to the Jewish community was only recently completed only recently. The community then decided to pass the property to the local municipality.