Lithuania’s wooden synagogues, the vestiges of a Jewish presence which was wiped out in the Holocaust, are falling into ruin from a lack of funding and support.
Hidden behind a row of houses, the wooden synagogue in the eastern town of Alanta looks more like a barn than a former house of worship.
This rundown building, which served as a fertilizer warehouse during the days of state farms, is now used for storage by Algis Jakutonis, a farmer living next door.
“I store my stuff there, and we still find traces of the Soviet era,” said Jakutonis, displaying the large iron key to the former synagogue, which he acquired before Lithuania’s independence in 1990.
Prior to that, his homeland was officially atheist in line with policy across the Soviet Union which marginalized religion and saw synagogues, churches and mosques all used for storage or abandoned. However, before World War II, Lithuania’s Jewish community numbered around 200,000 people, 90 percent of whom Nazi Germany and its local collaborators murdered between 1941 and 1944.
“Jews owned around 20 shops here. After the war, nothing was left,” said Danielius Drazdauskas, a 63-year-old carpenter born down the street from the synagogue whose fate fascinates him.
“Why is a Lithuanian interested in Jewish heritage? It’s simple: whatever the faith, it’s my cultural heritage and I feel a duty to protect it,” he said.
Now, a national Jewish charity and the Jewish Community of Lithuania, the owner of the Alanta synagogue, are looking to restore it.
“The restored synagogues could play an educational role, they are monuments to the memory of our community, once very important,” said Daumantas-Levas Todesas, head of the charity and member of the community’s heritage commission.
The first wooden synagogues appeared in Lithuania around the second half of the 17th century.
“Wood was the cheapest material around,” said Maria Rupeikiene, an architect and author of several papers on the Jewish heritage.
The oldest synagogues still in existence were built in the late 19th century, the most recent in the 1920s and 1930s. They were all returned to Lithuania’s small post-war Jewish community following a 1992 law.
Today, a lack of money and too few worshipers mean the synagogues are closed and rundown. The oldest of the lot, in the northern city of Pakruojis, was damaged in a fire in 2009.
“The most important thing is to preserve them. One option is to use them as libraries,” said Faina Kukliansky, lawyer and interim president of the Jewish community.
“Some municipalities have agreed to lease the synagogues for 99 years for their purposes, but it’s difficult because the buildings are in a very bad state,” she said.