Gargzdai (Gorzd), Lithuania

Buildings of the Jewish Community

There are several sources of information concerning the buildings of the Jewish community, including the recollections and town diagram provided by George Birman, the town drawing in the Gorzd Memorial Book (Image 12), the Jan. 16, 1945 aerial photos, the 1923 synagogue plans posted by the Gargzdai Museum, a German firemap from 1939, recollections of Gargzdai residents, and whatever may be learned from present conditions on the ground or in satellite photos on Wikimapia and Google Earth.  Aside from the 1945 aerial, no photos are known to exist of any of the buildings, with the exception of one photo of the synagogue ark.  (A photograph of the aron kodesh (ark) appears in Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry (Brooklyn: The Judaica Press, Inc., 1995), p. 195.) The small pictures in the town diagram in the Gorzd memorial book give some idea of the appearance of the buldings.

The aerial photos reflect conditions after a devastating fire in 1939, and battles in June, 1941 and October, 1944.  Presumably further destructive efforts were aimed against the buildings during the Nazi occupation.  The Gorzd Memorial book, published in 1980, reflected the memories of those who had left prior to 1941 and in most cases much earlier.  They probably worked without any maps or photos.  The configuration of the buildings did not remain constant over the years, and various sources may reflect different time periods.  Given all these sources of uncertainty, it is inevitable to find conflicting memories and interpretations.  Nonetheless, there are remarkable areas of agreement.

The Virtual Exhibition at the website of the Gargzdai Area Museum contains plans of the synagogue complex, LCVA, f. 1622, ap. 4, b. 1086, dated 1923 (at Virtual Exhibition webpage, click on plan at bottom of page to enlarge). The plans consist of large architectural drawings of the new synagogue (a floorplan, elevations and cross-sections), together with a smaller plot plan (1/5 the scale of the larger drawings) showing the location of several buildings within the synagogue complex. These are labelled as the existing synagogue, the new synagogue, and the existing rabbi's residence and four classrooms.  A good starting point for locating the various buildings is to try to find on the aerial photo, the new synagogue shown in the building plans.  It is possible to achieve a good match between the exterior of the building with ruins shown on the aerial photo.  (The match in size was achieved using the scaling information on the plans, and without trying to duplicate the size of the structure in the aerial photos.) If the plans are reversed east to west, there is also a remarkable match with an interior wall.

The aerial photograph #157 of Gargzdai, aligned to true north, with synagogue plans superimposed, is shown below:

  Figure 1

The best match between the plans and aerial applies only to the large building.  As for the existing synagogue, the plans may show an additional smaller building or building addition, rather than the main synagogue itself. The rabbi's residence and classroom were evidently constructed more to the southwest and smaller than shown in the plans.

Janina Valanciute writes in Gargzdu miesto ir parapijos istorija (Vilnius 1998, ISBN 9986-23-047-0) that the new stone synagogue was not completed until 1928.  There could have been considerable variation from the 1923 plans.

Present day satellite photos show that the area formerly occupied by the new synagogue shown in the 1923 plans is now a grass-covered area and basketball court.  The author has been told by two residents, in 2001 and 2008, that a wooden home to the west of the grass-covered area is at the former location of the synagogue. The resident speaking in 2008 indicated that this synagogue had been made of brick. Its location is consistent with the bulding which former Gorzd resident George Birman labelled Tiferet Bachurim in his Town Plan, and which Birman also said was made of brick. 

tiferet bachurim on aerial


Likely location of tiferet bachurim on 1945 aerial George Birman town plan (portion)

George Birman told the author that in the 1930's there were four buildings of the Jewish community in this area: a Beit Midrash (made of wood), a Shul (made of white masonry), a Tiferet Bachurim (for teenage boys, made of brick), and the rabbi's residence/school. His Town Plan indicates that the Beit Midrash was the building farthest to the east, while the Shul was to its southwest.  There are small drawings of the Shul and Beit Midrash in the Gorzd Memorial Book, posted by the New York Public Library (Image 12). This page in the Gorzd memorial book shows the two labeled buildings in a similar configuration to that shown in the Birman diagram.  The diagram in the Gorzd Memorial Book indicates that the Beit Midrash is the larger rectangular building with the arched windows, which looks similar to the building shown in the 1923 plans.  The building which Mr. Birman labelled "Bet Midrash" on his town plan was the newer building, which was made of masonry, while the building he labelled "Shul" was the older building, made of wood. It is highly likely that he simply misspoke when he described the building materials of the Shul and Beit Midrash.

After construction of the new Beit Midrash, the old Beit Midrash building was used by Tiferet Bachurim.

Photographs below, taken 2009, show general area where synagogue complex was probably located.
old synagogue area
looking north across synagogue st
looking east on synagogue street
Looking west towards location of old synagogue and tiferet bachurim (2009)
Wooden house indentified by two residents as site of former synagogue
Looking north towards likely site of tiferet bachurim (2009)
Street running east-west identified by resident in 2008 as Synagogue Street
Looking east on SynagogueStreet (2009)
(yellow rectangles inserted for privacy)

In order to place this building on the 1945 aerial, one can align the aerial with a modern map at, and move the maps until they correspond. Top of the map and photo is towards northeast.


Note: Building identified by residents as former synagogue is marked #14 on map. 

Map from OpenStreetMap OpenStreetMap contributors.  copyright information for

This type of comparison is inexact, and different attempts can result in different alignments, even far enough apart to align different buildings. A slightly different comparison of the map and aerial, covering a larger area, is shown farther below on this page.

synagogue from 158
three buildings located
Portion of Aerial #158 (January 16, 1945, from showing synagogue area. North is at the top.
For animation showing the relationship between photos #157 and #158, see here.

Likely location on aerial #158 of:
1)  new Beit Midrash, made of masonry (yellow arrow),
2)  old shul, made of wood (green arrow), 
3) Tiferet bachurim, made of brick, at site of former Beit Midrash  (dark blue arrow), and  
4) rabbi's residence and school (light blue arrow) (?)

Enlarged view

four buildings on aerial

The Shul and Beit Midrash traditionally serve differing but overlapping functions.  While Beit Midrash means "House of Study," the term is frequently translated as "House of Study and Prayer," because prayer takes place there as well as study.  A synagogue may be transformed into a Beit Midrash, but a Beit Midrash may not be transformed into a synagogue. (Jewish Encyclopedia).  Vladimir Levin, in "Synagogues in Lithuania: A Historical Interview," Synagogues in Lithuania, by Aliza Coen-Mushlin, Sergey Kravtsov, Vladimir Levin, Giedre Mickunaite and Jurgita Siauciunaite-Verbickiene  (Vilnius, Academy of Arts Press, Vol. I, 2010) writes that during 18th century Lithuania, the educational role of the Beit Midrash diminished, while its prayer role increased. See pp. 20,
32-33 It would be expected that a Beit Midrash, like a synagogue, would contain a women's gallery, ark and bimah.  Synagogues in Lithuania (excerpts posted at Google Books) lists numerous examples of a Beit Midrash with these elements.  

The Gargzdai plans show an interior wall and women's gallery.  The interior wall has been added in Figure 1 above to the west interior of the largest building. This internal wall matches features on the aerial photo.

The large architectural plans show the internal wall (and women's gallery on the second floor) on the right-hand side of the plans, and two exterior doors on the lower right corner. (The two doors are probably separate entrances for men and women. Sergey Kravstov, "Synagogue Architecture in Lithuania," in Synagogues in Lithuania, supra,  p. 53; Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, Wooden Synagogues, Institute of Polish Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw (1959), p 36.) The floorplan would not necessarily show north at the top, but the accompanying plot plan shows the exterior doors to be at the southeast corner of the building. The women's gallery could not be on the east side, because the aron kodesh (ark) was traditionally placed on the eastern wall. The women's gallery would commonly be on the west side, over the vestibule. Thus, Figure 1 assumes that the plans somehow were drawn in a mirror image of how the building was actually constructed.  Perhaps the person originally drawing the plans had not been told of the traditional orientation towards the east. A path on the ground, shown in the photo, leads to where an entrance would be located, if the entrances were at the southwest corner, not the southeast corner as shown on the plot plan.

For reference to the aron kodesh on the east side of Lithuanian and Polish synagogues, and/or the women's gallery on the west side, see Kravstov, supra, p.49-50; Levin, supra, pp. 36-37; Marija Rupeikiene, "The Sacral Heritage of Jewish Culture," in A. Jomantas, ed., Jewish Cultural History in Lithuania, Department of Cultural Heritage under the Ministry of Culture, Versus aureus (2006), ISBN 9955-699-47-7, at pp. 158, 159, 160, 163, 164; Alois Breier, Max Eisler and Max Grunwald, Holzsynagogen in Polen [Wooden Synagogues in Poland] (1934), p.63; Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, Wooden Synagogues, Institute of Polish Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw (1959), pp. 23, 28; Wooden Synagogues of Lithuania - Bet Tfila

The plans for the Sveksna synagogue (constructed 1928) are highly similar to the Gargzdai plans.  The Sveksna plans show the ark on the east wall, and the women's gallery on the west side upper floor.

If the identification of the synagogue/Beit Midrash on the aerial photo is correct, the building was oriented towards the southeast (about 27 degrees south of east). This is slightly closer to an eastern rather than a Jerusalem orientation. Jerusalem is southsoutheast of Lithuania (about 60 degrees south of east). 
Authorities seem divided as to whether a person praying is supposed to face east (the direction of sunrise) or instead towards JerusalemHolzsynagogen in Polen states on page 63 that although a movement began in Venice in the 18th century to orient synagogues directly towards Jerusalem, the wooden synagogues of Poland and the stone synagogues of Germany are oriented to the east.  Levin, supra, writes that the majority of synagogues in Eastern Europe are oriented to the east, but some in Lithuania are oriented southeast, with a few examples oriented northeast or south. Id. at pp. 23-24. For orientation of particular synagogues, see Synagogues in Lithuania, by A. Coen-Mushlin, S. Kravtsov, V. Levin, G. Mickunaite and J. Siauciunaite-Verbickiene, excerpts posted online at Google Books

synagogue location on aerial 158

Above: Animation showing in sequence 1) portion of Aerial 158; 2) same portion of Aerial 158 enhanced by unsharp mask,  3) Plans of Gargzdai synagogue/Beit Midrash, reversed from east to west, superimposed on likely location

synagogue location on 158

Above: Animation showing 1) portion of Aerial 158; 2) Plot plan for Gargzdai synagogue/Beit Midrash with two modifications: a) distance from street to building adjusted to reflect distance figure shown on plans; b) plans of building (reversed from east to west) superimposed on plot plan

(.gif Animations may not be visible with some browsers or operating systems)

compare aerial 158 and openstreetmap
Animation comparing Aerial #158 and current map from
Map from OpenStreetMap OpenStreetMap contributors
copyright information for OpenStreetMap

Note: Exact alignment is impossible, so correspondence of points between photo and map is only approximate.

possible ark location

Does white square (at tip of blue arrow) show the remnants of ark and steps leading to it?

The plans for the Gargzdai synagogue/Beit Midrash do not show the aron kodesh (ark), but the building would have had an ark (and steps leading up to it) at the center of the eastern wall.  Compare with the plans for the Sveksna synagogue, built at about the same time (plans were previously posted at which show an ark and steps. Does the small white square in aerial photo #158 show the stone or concrete remnants of the ark and steps of the Gargzdai synagogue/Beit Midrash?

Comparison with current map suggests this point now lies within the basketball court shown below (yellow rectangles hide individuals for privacy reasons):


For information on Sveksna synagogue, see:
     recent photo
     another recent photo
     photo gallery
     historic photo
     KehilaLinks page for Sveksna

        Perhaps the best documented wooden synagogue in Lithuania is discussed in the KehilaLinks page for Pakruojis.  For information on the virtual reconstruction of this synagogue, by the Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, click here.

The restored synagogue on L. Zamenhofo St., Kaunas (first constructed in 1850), pictured at the website of, Sinagoga senamiestyje (Zamenhofo g. 9) also bears a resemblance to the plans of the Gargzdai synagogue. The restored synagogue is pictured in Rupeikiene, p. 157, and discussed on p. 163.

Another Kaunas building (likely another of the city's 36 pre-war synagogues), shown in an aerial photograph on an undated postcard, also resembles the Gargzdai plans.

Photo may be looking west along present day Kestucio gatve. Building may be on present day Gedimino g. Can any reader confirm that a synagogue existed in this location?

Photos of Lithuanian Synagogues available on the web:

Jewish Synagogues of Lithuania at JewishGen

Neishtot-Tavrig (Zemaiciu Naumiestis) at JewishGen

Northern Jerusalem

wiki: Wooden synagogues of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Gargzdai main page

Identification of Features on Aerial Photo  |  Aerial Photo of Gargzdai

Copyright 2007 - 2016 John S. Jaffer