(JHE) — The restoration of the 19th century wooden synagogue in Žiežmariai, Lithuania, is drawing to a close, and the renovated building, which will become a cultural center, is already hosting cultural events.
Work on the exterior and main interior area, on the ground floor, has been completed, and the Lithuanian Jewish community reports that the final supervisory assessment of the restoration recently took place.
The restoration utterly transformed the synagogue, which stood in extremely dilapidated condition before the reconstruction began around five years ago.
Located just off the highway between Vilnius and Kaunas, it is owned by the Jewish Community of Lithuania, and managed by the Kaisiadorys District Municipality Administration.
“At first there was doubt the synagogue could even be saved. It was so abandoned and ruined. Even so, we resolved to renovate it and now we are very proud we have such a beautiful building,” Ramutė Taparauskienė, director of the Strategic Planning and Investment Department of the Kaišiadorys Regional Administration, said in an article on the Jewish community web site.
Currently the synagogue is hosting an exhibit of reproductions of drawings by Dora Pilianskienė, a Jewish artist born in the town.
In an article in April, the news site 15min.lt said that the first stage of the restoration entailed repair of the roof, ceiling, and facade. This was followed by the restoration of the interior, whose surviving structure and decoration, including stucco, stencil painting, and wooden vaults, “was in very poor condition.”
It quoted project manager Asta Mainonienė of the Cultural Infrastructure Center as saying:
Based on the data of surviving elements in kind, research and photo fixation, interior repair works were performed: restored ceilings and their finishing; restored, preserved columns, bima ceilings with rosette, wall plaster, floors and so on. The interior of the building was painted according to the findings of a polychrome study report. The aim of all maintenance works is to preserve and restore the remaining authentic fragments of the interior as much as possible.
Costs for the interior renovation amounted to €160,000, it said.
Hundreds of elaborate wooden synagogues once stood in eastern Europe. Only a small number of simple wooden synagogues survive. More than a dozen of them are in Lithuania, and in recent years several of these small, simple structures have undergone — or are undergoing — restoration. These include the synagogues in Alanta, Kurkliai and Pakruojis.
Last year, the news site 15min.lt wrote that the Department of Cultural Heritage (CRD) has funded renovation work on six wooden synagogues over the past decade, with state budget funds, as part of its Heritage Management Program.
The Žiežmariai synagogue probably dates from the latter half of the 19th century — and then was rebuilt after a fire in 1918. It includes a prayer hall with 18 windows (one of them combined with a door).
The book Synagogues in Lithuania vol 2, N-Z (Vilnius, 2012), 408-413, by Sergey Kravtsov, Giedrė Mickūnaitė, and Vladimir Levin, includes a detailed description of it:
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.