The wooden synagogues of Lithuania are rotting away. Today, there are only eight wooden synagogues (of hundreds) still standing in the remote villages: Pakruojis, Tirksliai, Seda, Zeizmariai, Kurkliai, Alanta, Rozalimas and Kaltinenai.
I became aware of these synagogues while reading about the history of Lithuania before my first trip there in the summer of 2000. I attempted some research on the buildings but found almost nothing written about them, even though they were at one time beautiful structures that were central to the life of the villages. The more I looked, the less I found. Since I always loved a great challenge, and since much of my recent art work has been based on Jewish history, I became obsessed with the idea of finding and documenting these structures.
I soon learned that although efforts have been made to raise money for synagogue restoration, the remaining Jewish community in Lithuania is much too small to mobilize efforts. Money is in short supply, and no one is certain whether the buildings belong to the municipality, township or region in which they are located. With my guide and interpreter, Lilia Jureviciene (provided by Europos Parkas Open Air Museum of the Center of Europe), I was able to visit five of the eight synagogues. It was an affecting adventure, moving in more ways than I had ever imagined.
The photos I took during my visits to the wooden synagogues are mostly exterior views, although there are occasional shots of interiors, when I could get inside. As a visual artist I found the synagogues and the stories about them inspirational and so have also included some shots of my art work based on this theme. An additional photo is of a small abandoned cemetery that lay outside the village of Rozalimas. I was taken to the site by a newly found friend from the village, Ola Vitekunene, and instructed to walk up the hill she pointed to. I found several ancient Jewish gravestones covered with dirt, grass and weeds. A couple of stones were still standing, but most were toppled over, lying on the ground under the debris. I remained in the cemetery for quite a while. When I descended from the hill, I found Ola waiting with a small bouquet of wild flowers she had picked for me. With tears in her eyes she embraced me and said, “I want to apologize for the terrible things that were done to your people,” – my people who were decimated during the Holocaust and later during the Soviet occupation.
Upon arriving at each village, Lilia would ask a local where the wooden synagogue was located. Typically, the first response would be, “I don’t know-- there is no wooden synagogue here,” though eventually someone would recall the location of the building. Many people were reluctant to talk with us at first - but then would not stop, as if they needed to unburden themselves. Others literally ran away when we told them what we wanted. Still others just stood nearby and listened. In Pakruojis, two drunken men sitting on their porch yelled very loudly at us in a threatening way. One woman made it very clear that Jews never occupied the house she was living in, even though it was right next to the synagogue and clearly in the Jewish quarter. In Rozalimas, a woman thought it funny that she is now living in the house once occupied by the Rabbi and laughed as she spoke about it. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, most people we spoke to praised their Jewish neighbors. They said “We all loved the Jews. They always helped people by giving them things and money. We can’t understand why such terrible things happened.”