The Great synagogue, Batei Midrash and Kloyzn in Vilnius

3 May, 2018


The first kloyz in Vilnius – the Old Kloyz in the shulhoyf – most probably appeared soon after the construction of the Great Synagogue in 1633. During the 18th-century new kloyzn were established by various religious and professional associations, as well as by private individuals. In 1729 the Vilnius kahal transferred the right of giving permissions for the establishment of private minyanim to the Tsdakah Gdolah (Great Charity) Association, the main communal organization responsible for social welfare. This right was still in force in 1821, even though in 1754 the rabbinical court of the community prohibited the foundation of private houses of prayer. Initially, the kloyzn were established in different courtyards in the vicinity of the shulhoyf, and from the early 19th century they spread throughout the city. In the late 18th and the first half of the 19th century, the prominent members of Vilnius Jewish elite used to establish private kloyzn in their houses, thus emphasizing their social status, wealth and devotion to the Torah study. Private kloyzn continued to appear in new quarters of the city in the first half of the 20th century, while many formerly private kloyzn in the city center were passed on to various professional associations in the second half of the 19th century. Many Jewish institutions had prayer halls in their premises: the hospital, the almshouse, the cheap canteen, the Talmud Torah school, the Rabbinic Seminary, and others. With the settlement of Jews in the suburbs of Vilnius, the synagogues and kloyzn were built there too. Vilnius kloyzn served not only as places of prayer for certain groups of Jews. Yeshivas or groups of Talmudic scholars, supported by the worshippers, were housed in many kloyzn. Many kloyzn hired a Talmudic scholar (maggid shi’ur) in order to provide lessons in sacred texts for the worshippers. Available data show that 40 synagogues and kloyzn hired a permanent maggid shi’ur even during WW I. Many kloyzn served also as headquarters of the gmilut ḥasadim associations, organized by the worshipers, which provided loans without interest for their members and for the needy. Local Jews were proud of the large number of synagogues and kloyzn in Vilnius and the important rabbis and Talmudic scholars associated with them. The majority of Vilnius kloyzn, especially those in the old town, were situated in regular dwelling houses. Sometimes they occupied one or two floors in a courtyard wing and their function was not articulated on the exterior. In other cases, a kloyz was built as a special wing in a courtyard. Only a few prayer houses, especially in suburbs, were facing streets and had elaborate street façades. Six synagogues, 33 prayer houses (kloyzn) and 127 minyanim existed in Vilnius in 1833–34, eight of them situated in the shulhoyf. In 1847 the Crown Rabbi of Vilnius, Israel Gordon (1877–55) reported of 5 synagogues and prayer houses, all but two of which existed before 1835 (a questionable statement, since the law from 1835 demanded permission from the authorities for the establishment of a synagogue).In 1869 the authorities counted six synagogues and 54 prayer houses. Rabbi Dr. Isaak Rülf (1831–1902) from Memel (Klaipėda) was told in 1881 that there are more than 80 prayer houses in the city, among them more than 20 kloyzn of craftsmen. In 1887 there were 93 prayer houses, including those in the suburbs; 9 houses of prayer sent their representatives to the election of the city’s Crown Rabbi in 1904–5 and 104 prayer houses were officially registered in 1910. In 1916 the community took care of 99 kloyzn and the Great Synagogue, but was not responsible for the kloyzn in the Jewish institutions, such as the hospital and almshouse. Lastly, 105 prayer houses were officially registered in 1925 and 1936. However, these numbers were not exact: for example, the librarian of the Strashun Library (and former unter-shames in the Old Kloyz) Khaykl Lunski (ca. 1881–1942/43) listed 80 kloyzn in his book written in 1917 and published in 1920. 110 synagogues, batei midrash and kloyzn were described in the report, probably prepared by Avraham Nisan Yaffe (the secretary of Rabbi Ḥaim Ozer Grodzenski [1863–1940] and a shoḥet) in the late 1941 and early 1942, on demand of the Judenrat for the Vilnius Headquarters of the Operational Staff Rosenberg (Einsatzstab Rosenberg) – a Nazi institution invested with collecting Jewish cultural treasures. In 1974 the editor of the album Jerusalem of Lithuania Leyzer Ran collected names of 160 synagogues and prayer houses in Vilnius before WW II; however, he registered the same kloyzn several times under different names. Yeḥezkel Kremerman (b. 1921) republished Ran’s list adding his explanations and some addresses. The description below is inspired by Yaffe’s report to the Rosenberg Headquarters and is based on the list by Leyzer Ran, which does not include addresses of the prayer houses. With the help of the lists prepared for the rabbinic elections of 1904, reports of the kloyzn to the central community in 1915–20, the Yiddish guidebook 1000 yor vilne published by Zalman Shik in 1939, Yaffe’s description and other sources it was possible to identify the majority of the kloyzn from Ran’s list and to add several kloyzn not included in it. The description is organized topographically: first the shulhoyf with its twelve synagogues, then the old Jewish quarter, the old town, the new town, the suburbs and the kloyzn the location of which could not be identified. The house numbers are given according to the pre-WW II numeration, as they appear in the 1904 and 1915–20 lists, Yaffe’s and Shik’s works; in relevant cases, the contemporary numeration is provided in parenthesis. This description also quotes from the belles-lettres, especially those of Chaim Grade (1910–82), a famous Yiddish poet and writer who spent his youth in Vilnius and devoted most of his works after WW II to the annihilated world of the Vilnius Jews. As compared to other sources, Grade describes the city with great precision; therefore his works are regarded as full-fledged memoirs. Nonetheless, it should be taken into account that the writings by Grade and other authors are fiction and not regular memoir books.

The shulhoyf

The Vilnius shulhoyf developed around the Great Synagogue in the 18th century and occupied a quarter between today’s Žydų (Jewish) and Vokiečių (German) Street. The shulhoyf consisted of two courtyards. The first one – the shulhoyf itself – was situated between the southwestern façade of the Great Synagogue and the Gaon’s Kloyz, and entered through a gate at 6 Žydų Street. In the 1930s this courtyard was paved with concrete. The second courtyard – called durchhoyf, a passage court – included the courtyards of the houses nos. 6, 8, 10, 12 on Vokiečių Street; it was cobbled with stones. Both courtyards were connected through the arched passages under the Old Kloyz or through an open passage around the New Kloyz. The shulhoyf was the true center of Jewish life in Vilnius. Besides the twelve synagogues and kloyzn, described below, the shulhoyf comprised the community’s “well” – a water basin from 1759 connected with a pipeline to the Vingrių springs that belonged to the Dominican friars. The communal bathhouse and public lavatories were placed nearby; from 1772 their sewage was connected to that of the Jesuit monastery.26 The new building of the bathhouse was constructed in 1823–28. The shulhoyf was situated on the territory designed by the Nazis as the “small” ghetto, or “Ghetto II.” It was intended for Jews incapable to work and existed only from September 6 until October 21, 1941. Since October 1941 the shulhoyf stood abandoned; part of the valuable religious objects and books were rescued and brought to the Jewish library in the “large” ghetto. Judging upon the photographs made during the war, the shulhoyf was not heavily damaged; additional destructions happened during the liberation of the city in 1944. In the late 1940s the Soviet authorities began to demolish the buildings in the shulhoyf and by 1957 it was completely razed down. Vokiečių Street was enlarged, thus occupying the western part of the former shulhoyf; new apartment houses were built along the street in the 1950s and 60s.28 The Vilnius shulhoyf was frequently depicted by artists, both before and after the Holocaust; dozens if not hundreds of photographs of it were made before the Holocaust and immediately after it, prior to its complete demolition. The shulhoyf occupies also a significant place in Jewish belles-lettres, especially those written by the Vilnius-born Yiddish authors. Chaim Grade gives a detailed description of the shulhoyf in his famous novel The Agunah (The deserted wife); in 1958 he published a collection titled Der Shulhoyf; it stands in the center of his story “Zeydes un eyniklekh” (Grandparents and grandchildren). Another Yiddish writer, Avrom Karpinovich (1914–2004) describes the shulhoyf in his stories “Di kats” (The cat) and “Der shulhoyf” in his collection Af vilner vegn (On Vilnius’ paths).

The Great Synagogue

The synagogue was apparently erected after the Vilnius Jews received the privilege in 1633. Already in March 1635, the Christian mob plundered the synagogue and the court files contain detailed descriptions of its furniture and chandeliers. An iron door leading from the polish (vestibule) to the prayer hall was donated by the tailors’ guild in 1640, and the door leading from the street to the polish – by the Magidei Tehilim (Psalms Sayers) Society in 1641. The Great Synagogue was a large, almost square building. Pilasters divided all four façades into three bays each, corresponding to the interior arrangement of the building. Each bay contained a segment-headed window, placed high above the ground. The central bay of the southeastern façade, marking the interior placement of the Torah ark, was narrower than the side bays. Annexes were attached on three sides of the synagogue, so that only the southeastern façade remained exposed, though it was partly concealed by shops and later by the Strashun Library (see below). Thus, only the upper register of the façades with twelve windows of the prayer hall was seen. Even the magnificent southeastern gable, decorated apparently in
the early 19th century as two-tiered galleries with Doric and Corinthian columns, was hardly visible from the street. The entire exterior became revealed only during the destruction of the synagogue and the adjacent buildings after WW II. The prayer hall of the Great Synagogue featured high Tuscan columns standing close together and reaching the spring of the vault, while the perimeter of the prayer hall was spanned by barrel vaults with twelve lunettes above the segment-headed windows. The lower tiers of the walls comprised segment-headed openings connecting the hall with several women’s sections. Tuscan pilasters corresponding to the exterior ones divided the walls into bays; at some point in time, Corinthian columns were painted on those pilasters. The floor of the synagogue was situated ten stairs lower than the ground level so that the interior space was higher than the building seen from the outside. The Great Synagogue was damaged by the fires of 1737, 1747 and 1748. The Mannerist Torah ark at the center of the southeastern wall was renovated by the Bedek Bait (Synagogue maintenance) Association after the fire of 1737 or 1748; a shield with the Tablets of the Law above the ark was donated by Yesod – Yehudah son of Eliezer (d. 1762). The shield, the doors of the Torah ark and the metal shell of the amud were rescued after the Holocaust and are preserved in the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum. Yesod also donated, probably after the above-mentioned fires, a two-tiered Baroque bimah with twelve columns: four Corinthian and eight Tuscan ones. Its design is sometimes attributed to the most popular Vilnius architect of the 18th century, Johann Christoph Glaubitz (ca. 1700–67). The depiction of the bimah by Franciszek Smugliewicz (1745–1807) from 1786 shows a structure which differs from that captured on the photographs from the first half of the 20th century. Smugliewicz depicts the bimah as a canopy supported by twelve Corinthian columns and topped by twelve curved buttresses, thus alluding to the Temple of Jerusalem as depicted by Juan Bautista Villalpando (1552–1608). The obviously exaggerated staircase leading to the bimah probably alludes to the Temple’s altar. Therefore, one may suppose that Smugliewicz’s drawing imbues the actual bimah with the meaning of the Temple and does not produce a precise depiction of its 18th-century appearance. A large Hanukah lamp recalling the Temple Menorah and a splendid chandelier was situated at the back, northwestern wall of the prayer hall. At the outburst of WW I, before the German army occupied Vilnius in 1915, these objects with other valuable artifacts were taken to Moscow never to return back. The remaining old objects were kept in the 1930s in the An-sky Ethnographic Museum in Vilnius. It is customary to note that the Great Synagogue had ca. 3,000 places for the worshipers. However, judging from the numbers on the seats seen on the photograph of N. Serebrin from ca. 1900, there were about 450 seating places for men in the prayer hall; the number of places in the women’s sections is unknown. The women’s sections were situated in the annexes on the northeastern and northwestern sides of the prayer hall. They were rebuilt by one of the heads of the community, Noaḥ Bloch (d. 1809); in the late 18th century. An annex with the polish on the ground floor and the “kahal hall” in the upper one was situated on the southwestern side of the synagogue. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, the polish was used as a prayer hall. A small room next to the polish was used at the beginning of the 20th century as a gnizah – a collection place for old religious books, intended to be buried in the cemetery. A legend maintains that from this room a secret tunnel leads to Trakai. The upper “kahal hall” included three rooms and a communal prison in the tower at the western corner of the Great Synagogue building. The tower comprised also a winding staircase leading to the roof; a Russian canon ball which hit the synagogue’s roof in 1794, but “miraculously” did not damage it, was preserved there.47 After the abolition of the kahal in 1844, the “kahal hall” was used for various communal purposes. The Strashun Library occupied it from 1892 until the erection of a separate building in 1902. The former “kahal hall” was transformed then into an additional women’s section of the Great Synagogue. As seen in photographs, it was lit by two large skylights. The new building of the Strashun Library was constructed in 1902 on the southeastern side of the synagogue according to the design by Konstantin Koroedov from 1896. It was built in place of the butchers’ shops erected in the mid-18th century by Yesod for the Tsdakah Gdolah Society: the drawing from 1834 features them as an elongated one-storey building and their roofs are seen in Fig. 61. The new building too, besides the library on the upper floor, comprised of shops on the ground floor. In 1893–98 renovation works in the Great Synagogue were carried out according to the design by engineer Leonid Viner. They included enlargement of the prayer hall, by removing the northwestern wall which separated it from the ground-floor women’s section and installing wide arches instead. In order to receive permission for this reconstruction, Viner had to produce measured drawings of the entire building. In 1934 the building of the Great Synagogue was measured by Roman Sigalin (1901–40) and Jerzy Berliner on behalf of the Institute of Polish Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology. The Great Synagogue was plundered and damaged in 1941, and it also suffered during the battle for the city in 1944. Nevertheless, in 1945 it was still standing, although roofless. In 1946 the short living Jewish Museum of Vilnius tried to list the synagogue as a historic monument and thus to preserve it but without success. In 1947 the synagogue was blasted and its ruins were pulled down in 1955–57.

Synagogues in Lithuania, N-Ž, a catalogue, ed. Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, Sergey Kravtsov, Vladimir Levin, Giedrė Mickūnaitė, Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė, Vilnius, 2012.


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