The synagogue is behind a locked gate so we had to ring a bell to gain entrance. We thought we would just be looking around on our own, but were fortunate to have the assistance of a young woman who works at the synagogue. She happily told us the story of the synagogue. It had survived the war as it was used for storage for the former Jewish hospital across the street which had been converted to a German military facility. She pointed out the hospital and the windows which were in the shape of the tablets of the ten commandments, a common feature in Jewish buildings.
She talked about how some people went to Russia before WWII as they anticipated that their young daughters would be conscripted for forced labor. By taking this precaution, they survived the war and they subsequently returned to Vilnius. After the war the synagogue became a gathering point as survivors connected with each other to find out if family and friends had also survived. When they celebrated the High Holy Days the crowd overflowed into the streets and the police cordoned off the street. During the Soviet times they had a clandestine matzo bakery and a shochet (kosher butcher) hidden within the synagogue. We were able to peer into a closed off curtained area which contained the remnants of the matzo bakery. When the Soviets loosened up immigration, many families immigrated to other countries around the world.
The synagogue was quite striking in a Moorish style with dominant colors of blue and white. A large Star of David was at the top of the domed ceiling surrounded by clouds against a blue background. As an orthodox synagogue it had a separate area above for the women to sit.
This is the Choral Synagogue and has an area, now closed off, where the men and boys' choir once sang. We learned that this Friday, our last day in Vilnius, a noted cantor will be participating in the service which we plan to attend. We also observed that the Hebrew prayer book was translated into Russian.
They hold daily morning services as well as on Shabbat. They are able to obtain a minyan (10 men required in order to conduct services), but there is concern that as members age it will become increasingly difficult and services may become more infrequent.
While this is a concern for the Jewish community, we were encouraged to see signs of a younger generation’s involvement in Jewish life. Children's drawings were posted on a wall and on the way out of the synagogue we saw a young woman with a very young toddler wearing a yarmulke. There is also a thriving Jewish school as well as summer camps for the children in the community.
After our visit to the synagogue we walked to the market which is housed in a large building with an adjacent outdoor area. They sold a wide variety of products, including food, clothing and toiletries. We noted that some of the merchants were elderly women selling their meager produce to eke out a living.
We found a local restaurant that was out of the main tourist area. The menu was handwritten on a chalkboard, all in Lithuanian. We asked a waitress to translate each item and we ordered more typical Lithuanian fare. Everything we have eaten has been excellent, even this little café.
From there we headed to the train station to purchase our insurance for our trip to Belarus. We had to provide our passports and they checked to verify that we had visas before issuing the insurance.
On the way back, I stopped at the Tolerance Center to see the exhibits. While we had gone to the opening of the Bulgarian Jewish exhibit, we had not seen the rest of the museum’s offering. The Tolerance Center is impressive and had a large exhibit of drawings from Gerardas Badgonavicius, a Lithuanian artist who lived from 1901-1986. His drawings were of the synagogues and people prior to WWII and as such represented a historical view of communities prior to their destruction. Also contained in the Tolerance Center are some important artifacts from the Great Synagogue of Vilnius including the doors of the Aron Kodesh and a cartouche with the Ten Commandments. There was a sizeable art exhibit which included drawings by two artists who created artwork in the Vilna and Kovno ghettos.
We ended our day at one of our usual haunts for dinner. The restaurant began to fill up with college students as they are beginning to return for the start of a new school year. It feels a bit like a changing of the guard as we prepare to leave our program even as they begin anew.