Dr. Vladimir Levin: The Great Synagogue in Vilnius: Between the City and Its Jewish Community

3 January, 2018


One hundred years ago, in the beginning of the 20th century, more than one hundred synagogues existed in Vilne/Vilna/Wilno/Vilnius. Some were very small and occupied only a single room, while others were much larger. Some were located in the narrow alleys and courtyards of the old Jewish quarter and could hardly be found without assistance. Others, however, stood in the central streets, visible to all. The majority of these synagogues were demolished during WWII or during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Today, only eight of the original one hundred remain standing. The question, therefore, is why so much attention drawn to the Great Synagogue of Vilne/Vilna/Wilno/Vilnius, but not to the eight remaining buildings, among them the functioning Choral Synagogue, or to the dozens destroyed synagogues?

The answer is clear: the Great Synagogue was not simply a place where people came to pray or to conduct religious rituals, it was the symbolic representation of the local Jewish community, one of the most important communities throughout Eastern Europe from the 17th century until the Holocaust. The Great Synagogue was first and foremost a symbol: the sacred place that belonged to the entire community, defining it as a holy community. Even the worshiping in the Synagogue had symbolic dimension, because praying there, or not, had meaning.

There is a story about one of the community leaders of the early 19th century, Meshulam Zalman Urison, that helps describe the importance of the Great Synagogue. Urison was rich enough to have his own kloyz, a small synagogue, in his home, as was customary among the Jewish elite. Nevertheless, he went to pray in the Great Synagogue every day, “even in winter” (as reported by Hillel Noah Maggid-Steinschneider). “Winter” is significant because, not only was it strenuous for the elderly to walk through snow, but mainly because there was no heating in the Great Synagogue. Urison not only prayed in the Great Synagogue, he oversaw that people did not speak on secular matters while in the Synagogue. Thus, for Urison and many other Jews, the Great Synagogue was special. It stood apart from the other houses of prayer, and occupied the most prominent place in their view of the city and its Jewish community.

In Yiddish the Great Synagogue was usually called di shtot shul, which means “The City Synagogue”. This name clearly implies that the Synagogue was considered to be the synagogue of the city; all other synagogues were for private people, religious or professional associations, various groups and various neighborhoods.

A good indicator of the importance of the Great Synagogue for local Jews is a specific legend, which tells how once upon a time the Karaites of Trakai took over the Great Synagogue. After, they dug a secret underground tunnel from Trakai to the Synagogue, which allowed them to come and pray. Jews considered the Great Synagogue to be so important that even the Trakai Karaites were willing to appropriate it, dig a 30 km tunnel, and walk through the dark tunnel just to pray in such a sacred place.

The legend stresses the significance that the Great Synagogue held for the Vilnius Jews. Perhaps, its symbolic and representative function was more important than its function as a place of worship.

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The first synagogue in Vilnius was supposedly erected in 1573, on a plot exempted from the municipal jurisdiction because the city of Vilnius, as did many royal and grand ducal cities, had the right de non tolerandis judaeis. 20 years later, the synagogue was plundered by the local mob. The next year, 1593,

the Jewish community received the privilege from the King and Grand Duke to settle in the city, have a synagogue and a cemetery, and to trade. It is unclear if this privilege simply reassured the existing situation or if it meant the erection of a new building of worship. In 1606, the Christian mob attacked the synagogue again. In 1633, Vilnius Jews received a new privilege, which permitted them to build a new synagogue “on the same plot where it stands now.” Thus, the construction of the Great Synagogue, which is documented in visual sources, might be dated back to 1633. The true relationship between the synagogue of 1573 and the Great Synagogue should be resolved through archeological excavations.

Two years after the privilege of 1633, the Great Synagogue was plundered, yet again, by the Christian people of Vilnius. The official complaint about the looting describes 18 Torah scrolls, numerous silver candelabra, a Hanukah menorah, precious Torah ark curtains, etc. having been taken from the Synagogue.

The lootings of the Great Synagogue in the 16th and 17th century define it as the focal point of the conflicts between the Christian and Jewish populations of Vilnius. When the Christians, or part of them, considered Jewish presence, Jewish behavior, or Jewish economic activities inappropriate, they turned their anger not only against individual Jews and Jewish houses, but also against the Synagogue; which represented all Jews.. The outcome of looting the Synagogue, besides the obvious material gains, was a figurative assault on the symbol of the Jewish community.

Although the Great Synagogue was the primary public building of the Jews, it was nearly imperceptible. The building stood in the middle of the Jewish quarter and did not face any streets. This situation closely reflects the structure of medieval and early modern cities, where public spaces were not necessarily open to all. The German church, built in the mid-16th century, followed the same scheme: the large and impressive building is hidden inside the quarter, in a courtyard. Protestants, as well as Jews, were minorities in the Catholic city, and their public representation was hidden behind regular dwellings. Unlike the Great Synagogue, the German church survived the war and the communist regime.

The interior of the Great Synagogue, as we know from photographs, was completed in the mid-18th century. After several fires damaged the Synagogue, the richest and most influential person in the community, Yehuda ben Eliezer, donated an elaborate bimah and shield, which decorated the Torah ark.

The most memorable part of the Great Synagogue, a Neo-Classical gable above its eastern façade, appeared in the early 19th century as is evident from its architectural style. It is possible that this prominent gable referred to the Vilnius Cathedral, which was rebuilt in the Neo-Classical style in 1783. The Cathedral’s portico is an integral part of its Classical style and it stresses the solemn main entrance to the building. In the Great Synagogue, a gable with columns was added to the existing structure, but served no practical function. It seems that its primary goal was to stress the importance of the Synagogue and to equate it to the most important Christian building in the city. Another explanation for the Synagogue’s gable could be the new building of the Vilnius City Hall, finished in 1799, which also featured a prominent portico. Although hidden in the middle of the Jewish quarter, the Synagogue was in constant dialogue with the city of Vilnius and its landmarks.

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As the center of the Jewish community, the Great Synagogue housed the offices of the community (kahal), called “kahal shtub“. Kahal was autonomous in its internal affairs and ruled over all Jews residing in the city. The building of the Great Synagogue, therefore, was a kind of city hall for the Jewish residents of Vilnius. A communal jail was also situated in the Great Synagogue.

Great synagogues in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe never stood alone. They were usually surrounded by a complex of communal institutions and smaller prayer houses, in Yiddish called the shulhoyf, or the courtyard of the synagogue.

The shulhoyf of the Vilnius Great Synagogue included a communal well, outhouse, and bathhouse with  a mikveh, all situated behind the Synagogue. The community also owned shops situated in front of the Synagogue. In the late 19th century the library of Mattityahu Strashun came into the hands of the community and was also housed in the shulhoyf. In 1902, a special building for the library and shops was constructed in front of the Synagogue. At the age when the importance of religion diminished and the significance of culture grew, the “temple of the culture”, the library, was placed next to the most sacred religious space.

Smaller synagogues, intended for certain groups within the community, were also concentrated around the Great Synagogue. The Old Kloyz was intended for study of Torah, the is the main Jewish religious duty. In contrast to the Great Synagogue, it had an oven and was warm during the winter. The New Kloyz was established for the same purpose by the previously mentioned Yehuda ben Eliezer in 1755-1757. The Kloyz of the Vilna Gaon was organized by one of the Gaon’s wealthy relatives in 1768, as a place where the Gaon and his disciples could study. Completely reconstructed in 1868, the Gaon’s Kloyz became a sacred place, commemorating the most illustrious Jewish personality of the city.

The synagogue of the Hevra Kadisha – Burial Society – was erected in 1748. It served the elitist association of the richest and most influential people in the community. Other groups, who established themselves in the synagogue compound, were from the opposite lower strata of the community. Painters and workers had their synagogues behind the Great Synagogue.

Another group that had its prayer house near the Great Synagogue were the Hasidim. Although Vilnius was the center of Litvak, anti-Hasidic Jews, two Hasidic prayer houses were situated in the shulhoyf  during the 19th century: the minyan of the Koidanov and Slonim Hasidim and the minyan of the Habad Hasidim. Placement of Hasidic prayer houses in the communal shulhoyf was a clear indication to the end of the struggle between Hasidim and their opponents and it legitimized the Hasidic way of worship.

In total, there were 12 synagogues in the Vilnius shulhoyf, including the Great Synagogue. Although this sum was unintentional, the number 12 has symbolic meaning in the Jewish culture: 12 Tribes of Israel, 12 zodiac signs, and 12 months of the year. All the synagogues were united by the fact that they stood around the Great Synagogue.

Notwithstanding the fact that Jews spread across Vilnius, the Great Synagogue and its compound remained the literal and symbolic center of the community until the Holocaust.

The Nazis did not damage the Great Synagogue. While in Germany the majority of synagogues were looted and set on fire in 1938, during the so-called “Reichskristalnacht,” it was unnecessary in Vilnius. By the summer of 1941, the Nazis had already started the mass murder of Jews; therefore, there was no need to symbolically murder them through the desecration of Jewish places of worship. Unlike the Jewish community of Vilnius, the Great Synagogue and the shulhoyf  survived World War II with relatively minor damage. The testimonies for this are not only numerous photographs, but also parts of its Torah ark, which can be seen today in the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.

After the war, the Jews who returned to Vilnius paid special attention to the Great Synagogue. It was not suitable for worship, and so a functioning synagogue was established in the Choral Synagogue on Pilimo Street, which was not part of the ghetto and therefore remained intact. The shulhoyf, however, remained the imagined center. On May 13, 1945, the burial procession for the desecrated Torah scrolls entered the shulhoyf on its way to the Užupis Cemetery, and speeches were delivered from the half-destroyed porch of the Gaon’s Kloyz.

The short-lived Jewish Museum established in Vilnius at the end of the war tried to protect and repair the Great Synagogue. For the Museum activists it was the most important architectural landmark of the Vilnius Jewish community, and its preservation for future generations was imperative.

The ruins of the Great Synagogue and the entire shulhoyf, however, were razed down in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In a socialist, Soviet, city there was no place for the physical symbol of the Jewish community. Jews were barely discernable in the Soviet Union and external signs of their presence were not welcome. The Great Synagogue disappeared from the city and from the city maps.

Following the restoration of the independence of Lithuania in 1990, the site of the Great Synagogue was marked again, although in a modest approach. My hope is that the conference, convened by the Litvak World organization will result in the commemoration of this building, which was much more than a just building. I hope for the commemoration of the symbol, which for 300 years represented one of the most important Jewish communities in Europe.

Dr. Vladimir Levin

Acting Director, Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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