Dr. Aistė Niūnkaitė Račiūnienė : overview of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum’s collection commemorating the Great Synagogue

9 May, 2018

The personality of the Vilna Gaon, the great 18th century thinker and scholar, earned the city of Vilnius the name of Jerusalem of Lithuania, the Great Synagogue being one of its main centers of attraction. The beautiful and bustling synagogue built in the seventeenth century together with the synagogual yard (schulhof) that gradually formed around it and Ramailės alley, became a source of inspiration for artists and writers from Lithuania and abroad.

There is a watercolor painting in our collection, rarely found in iconography, which captures the image of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius before the Strashun Library was built on Žydų street in 1901 covering the synagogue from one side. The painting, made in 1945 by an engineer, architect, and researcher of Vilnius Zygmunt Mieczysław Czaykowski (1887-1950), who worked in the city in the first half of the 20th century, was an almost exact replica of a watercolor painting by his colleague, an engineer, architect and painter Juozapas Kamarauskas (1874-1946) created in 1899, most likely – from real life, now part of the Lithuanian National Museum’s collection. Both architects were true lovers of Vilnius. They tirelessly documented it, created historical reproductions of its buildings, and at the outset of WW2 worked together in the Architectural Department of the Vilnius City Municipality. Most probably Czaykowski copied Kamarauskas’ watercolor for research and documentation purposes. Apparently, the Great Synagogue of Vilnius was in the field of his interests, as in 1944, before the war was over, he made another drawing of the building and the Strashun Library in front of it. This drawing stored in our collection is special because it contains the latest known image of a yet undamaged synagogue before the Red Army’s onslaught on Vilnius in July 1944.

The museum also has a watercolor sketch depicting the courtyard of the Great Synagogue from within. The watercolor was created by a German graphic artist Walter Buhe (1882-1958) who served in the Kaiser Army deployed in Vilnius during the WW1 and was one of the main artists of the German newspaper published in Vilnius Wilnaer Zeitung, its illustrated supplement Bilderschau der Wilnaer Zeitung and the album Wilna im Kriegsjahr 1916, published in 1916. He made many sketches of the city, documented its architectural monuments and paintings by its residents. Walter Buhe’s artistic heritage of this period is rather abundant; many of his watercolors and drawings, most of which date back to 1916-1918, now belong to private owners. The watercolor of the synagogue yard is unique and interesting in that it is one of Buhe’s earliest works of this period, since, according to the date written by the author, it was created on September 25, just a week after Vilnius was occupied by the German army.

Actually, during the First World War, the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, the schulhof and the Jewish Quarter received special attention from the German press as a symbol representing the exotic visual identity of the city. Their photographs often appeared in the above-mentioned German publications and on postcards. Rolf Dyckerhoff, the great-grandson of the Kaiser Army General Field Marshal Herman von Eichhorn, has donated several such images to the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum together with some other views of Vilnius.

The Great Synagogue and the schulhof appeared in works by many Jewish artists whose lives were brutally cut short by the Holocaust. Most of the artworks did not survive the war either. We are happy to have a print The Schulhof of Vilnius by a well-known prewar artist and teacher Jakob Sher (1890-1944), and an untitled sketch of the same place made at an almost identical angle by a promising young artist, member of the group Jung Vilne (Young Vilnius) Bencion Michtom (1909-1941). One can suppose that both drawings were created in late 1930s or early 1940s. In both of these works, we see the schulhof as well as the buildings on Ramailės alley from the bird’s eye view. Presumably, both artists made their drawings while looking from the same arched window of the Great Synagogue. Perhaps, through one of the windows perpetuated by artist Leib Antokolsky (1872-1942) in his engravings of the Old Synagogue’s interior published in the Jewish Encyclopedia (Еврейская энциклопедия, vol.5, p. 571) in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1910.

Bencion Michtom was murdered in Paneriai together with tens of thousands of other Vilnius Jews in June 1941, soon after the Germans occupied the city and began mass executions of its Jews. The sketch of the Great Synagogue’s schulhof created by Michtom, survived the war together with a large number of his drawings and watercolors that were hidden in the ghetto.

Jakob Sher, who lived in the Vilnius ghetto until its liquidation, died in a concentration camp in Estonia. He actively participated in the ghetto’s cultural life: made drawings and paintings as well as exhibited his works in exhibitions organized in the ghetto. Perhaps he would have survived the war if he had not returned to Lithuania from Switzerland, where he had gone for medical reasons. Herman Kruk wrote about Sher in his diary in 1942: “Just before the war, he ran away from Switzerland to his homeland, to Jerusalem of Lithuania. Now he goes to work like all the Jews of the ghetto. He works in the “SS”, painting pictures of the old ghetto. Of the new – God forbid…” [1]

When part of the old city of Vilnius was fenced off and the ghetto, established in September 1941, was divided into two parts – the Large Ghetto and the Small Ghetto – the Great Synagogue and the schulhof fell within the boundaries of the Small Ghetto. One month later, the Small Ghetto was liquidated and all its inhabitants taken to Paneriai and killed. In his diary Herman Kruk points out that by December 1941, many valuable items and prints from the Great Synagogue and the Strashun Library were moved to the Large Ghetto and the library on Strašuno st. 6. In the records made in January 1942, Kruk presented a list of  “valuable items saved during the expeditions to the Second (Small) Ghetto before January 1: over two thousand books from the Strashun Library, 20 manuscripts, several hundred scrolls and religious books, about 700 different ritual objects, ritual accessories etc.”[2] The fate of these objects is unknown to us. Unfortunately, we do not even know how they looked and can only try to imagine them from the short descriptions provided by Kruk and from the scarce available iconographic material, such as prewar photographs by a photographer from Vilnius Cinovecas, made at the request of the An-sky Jewish Museum and published in the book Toldot hekehila ha’ivrit be Wilna[3].

Also, we can only guess if the three authentic objects from the Great Synagogue’s interior stored in our museum’s collection – a cartouche with precepts of the Lord from the aron kodesh of the Synagogue, a music stand from the cantor’s table, and a two-sided door from the aron kodesh – were among the items mentioned by Kruk. Not only can they be found in numerous photographs of the synagogue’s interior, they also appear in an engraving by Leib Antokolsky, published in the Jewish Encyclopedia in 1910, in Mark Chagall’s painting made in 1935, now part of a private collection in Paris, and some pre-war photographs. The pole for fixing the cantor’s music stand by the handrail of the aron kodesh and empty holes in the wall of the aron kodesh are the sole reminders of these objects in the post-war photographs of the Great Synagogue’s interior stored in our museum. These relics are the only authentic elements of the Great Synagogue’s interior known to have survived the Holocaust. Now they are exhibited at the Tolerance Center of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.

These objects most likely appeared in the Great Synagogue in mid-eighteenth century when the interior of the synagogue was reconstructed after the fire of 1748, when the aron kodesh and bimah were rebuilt. The dedication in Hebrew on the cartouch indicating that it was donated by a famous Lithuanian thinker, talmudist and philanthropist Judah ben Eliezer (died in 1762), who had a high Sod (abbreviation of the Hebrew words for “scribe and judges”) status and is otherwise known as the Yesod, allows us to make such an assumption. The inscription on the cartouche reads: “This is a gift from Judah Sod who gave this to his sons and daughters. May the Lord raise them to the Torah, the chuppah and good deeds. Amen.” There is evidence that the Yesod also donated the bimah to the Great Synagogue after its renovation in the 18th century as well as founded the New Synagogue built in the schulhof in 1755-1757.

Certainly, we can be very proud of posessing authentic objects from the Great Synagogue that date back to the times of the Vilna Gaon in our collection, however, the collection dedicated to the memory of the Great Synagogue is essentially determined not by its wealth or uniqueness, but by its ultimate goal, which is oriented towards the preservation of the memory of the annihilated Jewish world of Lithuania. This was how our predecessors, founders of the post-war Jewish museum, Abraham Sutzkever, Shmerke Kaczerginsky, Leo Abramovich, Gutkovich and other Holocaust survivers who began collecting hidden and rescued cultural items for the Vilnius Jewish Museum as soon as the battles for Vilnius were over in July 1944, understood their mission. It is to them and to those people who, in spite of the inhumane living conditions and violence in the Vilna ghetto, did their best to rescue valuable cultural objects ​​as tokens of Jewish life for future generations, that we should be grateful for the preservation of the above mentioned artefacts of the Great Synagogue, as well as for many other exhibits that make up the golden fund of our museum. We are endlessly grateful to them for another authentic artefact belonging to one of the synagogues in the schulhof – a decorative vertical shield from the cantor’s table – which can also be seen in post-war photographs among the other valuable items ​​saved in the Vilna ghetto.

At the time, in 1944-1945, Jewish intellectuals still had the hope that they might not only preserve the memory of the destroyed Jewish world, but even partly restore the world itself. Especially since in November 1944, the authorities officially renewed the activities of the Vilnius Jewish Museum. Besides, the former Jewish quarter, the schulhof and the Great Synagogue, although having suffered severe damages during the onslaught in 1944 and being in a deplorable condition, were still there. There is evidence that in 1944-1945 people were still praying in the Great Synagogue of Vilnius. Jewish intellectuals visiting the city would also visit the synagogue. The museum has a photo of a Jewish poet Peretz Markish (1895 – 1952) who came to see the Great Synagogue in 1945 together with his colleagues.

The fact that the state of the schulfoh and the surrounding area was relatively good in the autumn of 1944 is corroborated by the pictures taken by Sofija Urbonavičiūtė-Subačiuvienė (1915-1980) in 1944. She was commissioned by the Communal Service of the People’s Commissariat of the LSSR to document the damage suffered by Vilnius in July 1944. The photographs show the buildings of the schulhof, the Old Synagogue, Žydų Street, the Strashun Library, and Ramailė alley. Although the buildings look damaged by fires and some have no roofs, the main structural elements had remained. Thus, the buildings could be restored. This is also evidenced by numerous photographs capturing images of the schulhof and the Great Synagogue that were taken in 1945 and, prior to our museum, belonged to the post-war Jewish Museum.

Unfortunately, the reality was different: instead of renovating the schulhof, the state began to demolish it. A year later, the wall of the Old Synagogue was torn down. This is evidenced by the photograph of the desecrated Torah scrolls burial procession taken in May 1945, now also part of our museum’s collection. The wall wall of the Old Synagogue, which was still standing in 1944, had already been demolished by May 1945. Photographs taken in 1946 show that the Strashun Library was destroyed a year later. Then followed the Gaon’s synagogue.

The process of the destruction of the schulhof and the Great Synagogue is documented not only in post-war photographs, but also in a series of paintings called “Vilna Ghetto” by painter Rafael Chwoles (1913-2002) made between 1945 and 1947. The artist was born in Vilnius before the war and spent the war years in Russia. When he returned to Vilnius in 1945 he did not find the world he had left behind: many of his relatives and friends had been murdered in the ghetto, and his hometown was desolate and unrecognizable. Chwoles was driven by his longing, his suffering and the fact that he understandood that it was necessary to document the leftovers of the destroyed world. Therefore he painted and photographed the last remnants of the Jewish Vilnius for several years continuously returning to the schulhof and the ruins of its synagogues.

A friend of Chwoles’, writer Shlomo Beilis Legis wrote in the introduction to the reproduction album by Chwoles published in Warsaw in 1962, “With a palette in his hand, Raphael roamed between the derelict walls, climbed the hills of rubble, and tirelessly painted. Day after day. Month after month. Like a researcher hastily following in the footsteps of events that have just taken place. We can call the main theme of the artist’s work created at that time: “The Day After the Destruction”. The paintings overflow with the artist’s grief over the defilement and destruction of his home, his heart. All these were authentic historical documents. The ruins spoke in their unique language – the language of facts…” [4]

Seeing the schulhof suffer from continuous damage, having lost their hopes, the workers of the post-war Vilnius Jewish Museum repeatedly appealed to the authorities calling for the protection of the Great Synagogue. The archives of the Cultural Heritage Protection Department contain original documents certifying this. In June 1945, in his letter to the Lithuanian SSR Education and People’s Commissariat, the director of the Vilnius Jewish Museum Gutkovičius wrote: “The Great Prayer House of Vilnius (the synagogue), located in Žydų st. 6 Vokiečių st. 12, because of its age, historical and architectural value, is to be regarded as an ancient cultural monument and as such must be protected. // Basis: Law on Protection of Cultural Monuments of the Lithuanian SSR (“Soviet Lithuania”, No. 26, 1940.X.30).” We also have a letter written one year later, in July 1946, addressed to the Board of Architectural Affairs and signed by the director of the Vilnius Jewish Museum, Gutkovičius and members of the Museum’s council. The museum workers wrote that the condition of the neglected synagogue had worsened further during the year, because due to the destruction of the synagogue’s roof “the architectural and artistic objects of the synagogue are falling apart, rotting and growing moldy”. The authors of the letter asked to include the building of the synagogue in the list of state-protected architectural monuments, to build a wire fence around the synagogue and help repair the roof and glaze the windows. Soon after, a plaque appeared on the wall of the synagogue indicating that it was a monument protected by the State. This is evidenced by a photograph store in our archives. But that was all. No repair works of the synagogue were ever started and the building kept on disintegrating. Besides, the Vilnius Jewish Museum itself was closed in 1949, officially reorganizing it into the Vilnius Museum of Local Lore. The state began to devise a general plan for the reconstruction of Vilnius based on which it was decided to demolish the Great Synagogue (1955-1957) as early as in 1945 and approved it in 1953. So the schulhoif and the Great Synagogue which had witnessed many centuries of the Jewish history of Vilnius, were finally wiped off from the ground.

Still, the image of the Vilnius Great Synagogue and the schulhoif is inseparable from the ages-old history of Lithuanian Jews, it has remained the spiritual center of the Lithuanian Jewish world, non-existent in reality, but present in the collective memory, a center that attracts descendants of Lithuanian Jews from all over the world. This year, the collection of our museum was supplemented by a valuable gift from a third generation Litvak Doug Schaper – a painting by a Jewish artist David Labkovski (1906-1991), who grew up in Vilnius, inherited by Schaper from his grandfather Charles R. Adelson, who, according to his testimony, was a descendant of the Vilna Gaon.

Among the paintings created by Labkovski in Vilnius, there is also an image of the schulhof and the Great Synagogue. It is interesting that the painting was dated 1949, which means it was created around the same time as Chwoles’ work. However, the painting by Labkovski is very different from the documentary works of Chwoles, which captured the real state of the schulhof. In Labkovski’s painting we see the intact, colorful, albeit a little melancholy view of the Jewish quarter with the vibrant Ramailė alley, the Strashun Library and the formidable Great Synagogue still standing strong, and the schulhof passage streching through the open gate. Only the date written on the picture, 1949, and the real historical circumstances of that period, quite different from what’s portrayed in the picture, make us think about the intentions of the artist who created the painting, and pay attention to the extremely sad and depressed human figures most of whom are faceless and look as if burdened by an unbearable weight. If one takes a harder look at them, they begin to seem unrealistic, like motionless shadows from the past. This painting is one of the earliest works known to us created after WW2 by Labkovski who had returned from his exile in Siberia to Vilnius in 1946. For a while David Labkovski worked in the post-war Jewish museum, and created this painting in the same year when the Vilnius Jewish Museum was closed. After immigrating to Israel in 1958, David Labkovski continued to paint Vilnius, the schulhof and the Great Synagogue as he remembered them from his childhood and youth – intact and alive – but would always add details foretelling the imminent destruction of this world. When living in Israel, the artist refused to sell his paintings – their subjects were extremely personal and painful, and David Labkovski firmly believed that his creative oeuvre would some day become the property of society. He was convinced that his art belongs to the Jewish people. In 1988, the David Labkovski Museum was opened in Ramat Gan, Israel. David Labkowski’s project seeking to bear record to the Holocaust and the humanity’s behavior during the darkest times of its history through the artist’s creative legacy, is underway. Thus the artist’s dream that one day his art would be known to the general public as a testimony of the past and a sign of hope has been realized. And it is a great honor for us that this painting by David Labkovski, so meaningful and symbolic, returned to Vilnius in 2016 after traveling around the world – from Vilnius to Israel with its creator in 1958, and from Israel to America in 1963 where for several decades it belonged to one of the descendants of the Vilna Gaon. The painting returned home in the same box in which it was sent from Haifa to New York in 1963. In conclusion, the image of the Great Synagogue, together with the figure of the Vilna Gaon, despite long decades of oblivion, remains the most important symbol of the Lithuanian Jewish identity.

[1] Kruk Herman, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania / Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944, ed. by Harshav Benjamin, tranlated by Harshav Barbara, 2002, p.189

[2] Kruk Herman, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania / Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944, ed. by Harshav Benjamin, tranlated by Harshav Barbara, 2002, p. 164-166.

[3] Klauzner Israel, Toldot hakehila ha’iwrit b’Wilna, Wilno: Druk. F. Garbera, 1938.

[4] Belis-Legis, S., Rafał Chwoles. 30 reprodukciji, Warszawa, 1962, s. 3.


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