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, aerial photos #157 and #158 dated January 16, 1945, the 1923 synagogue plans in the Lithuanian Archives, a German firemap from 1939, recollections of Gargzdai residents set forth in the Memorial Book and elsewhere, and whatever may be learned from present conditions on the ground or in satellite photos on and Google Earth.  Aside from a photo of the ruins taken by George Birman in 1945, and the 1945 aerials, no photos are known to exist of any of the buildings, with the exception of one possible photo of an ark. 


[Note: Possible photo of ark: A photograph labelled "The aron kodesh in Gorzhd" appears in Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry (Brooklyn: The Judaica Press, Inc., 1995), ISBN 1-880582-18-X, p. 195. What appears to be this same photo, but perhaps a different copy, may be found in the archives of Yad Vashem.  The Yad Vashem webpage currently states the picture to be of Grudziadz, Poland. The handwriting on the back of the photo, as posted at Yad Vashem, states it to be "Gruzd" and "study hall" (in Hebrew alphabet), and "Gruzdziai" (in Latin alphabet). The Yad Vashem archives have also previously attributed this photo to Gruzdziai  - see previous link at p. 210.  This same photo is attributed to Gruzdziai in Josef Rosin, Preserving our Litvak Heritage, Vol. II (2007).

The towns of Gargzdai (Gorzd) and Gruzdziai (Gruzd) are frequently conflated.

Aside from the photo of the aron kodesh, Rabbi Oshry's book shows a second photograph entitled "view of Gorzhd" on p.195. This street view is the same photo attributed to Gruzdziai in the archives of Yad Vashem, where it is dated 1927. The same photo appears in the Gorzd Memorial Book, p. 48 (English section) where it is labelled "Market Street." Rosin in Preserving our Litvak Heritage Vol. II (2007) attributes this street photo to Gruzdziai.

The author of the present webpage obtained from an online auction site a copy of the aron kodesh photograph. On the back it contains separate ink stamps from Vad Yashem and Encyclopedia Judaica, and handwritten notes in English and Hebrew. The handwritten notes refer to Gruzdziai. In other handwriting, someone has crossed out the "ru" in Gruzdziai, and written above those two letters the letters "ar." Someone evidently thought the original handwritten attribution of Gruzdziai was incorrect, and the ark pictured was in "Garzdziai."

The auction seller in Israel reported that he had acquired the photo (and other items) a number of years ago from the archives of the Encyclopedia Judaica. The stamp for Encyclopedia Judaica contains the notation that the photo is Illust. No. 71/899 and Neg. 16451. The notation 71/899 appears on several photos of Lithuanian synagogues, listed by the same seller, bearing the stamps of Encyclopedia Judaica and Yad Vashem. The photo does not seem to be printed in Encyclopedia Judaica (1st Ed.), which has no entries for Gargzdai, Gorzd, Gruzdziai, or Gruzd.

The photo labelled "Market Street" in the Gorzd Memorial Book bears a superficial resemblance to a photo postcard looking west along Gargzdai's main street (taken during the German occupation of WWI, when it was renamed Hindenburgstrasse), in that both show a similar upward slope away from the camera. This similarity may be merely coincidental. The clearest version of the "Market Street" photo, in the Yad Vashem archives, appears to show a vertical object (possibly a well?) standing as an obstruction in the middle of the street, towards the crest of the hill in the distance. No such feature is known in Gargzdai.

It is unknown whether Rabbi Oshry, as well as the anonymous annotator of the photograph formerly in the possession of Encyclopedia Judaica, had particular reasons for attributing the aron kodesh photo to Gargzdai and not Gruzdziai. This remains a topic for further investigation.]


The pictures in the town diagram near the front of the Gorzd Memorial Book give some idea of the appearance of the buildings.


Illustration 1

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.

synagogue plans

Illustration 2A

Illustration 2(a) contains plans of the synagogue complex from the Lithuanian archives, LCVA, f. 1622, ap. 4, b. 1086, dated 1923, formerly posted by Gargzdai Area Museum. 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 (B), the new synagogue (A), and the existing rabbi's residence and four classrooms.

seace rendering
Illustration 2(b)
Rendering of Gargzdai "new synagogue" from plans at Lithuanian archives
Rendering by Barry Seace
Plans reversed E to W, to place entrance door at west end of southern face.

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 in Illustration 3:

  Illustration 3

The best match between the plans and aerial applies only to the large building.  As for the existing synagogue, see discussion below at Illustration 21. The rabbi's residence and classroom were evidently constructed in a different place 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 building which former Gorzd resident George Birman labelled Tiferet Bachurim in his Town Plan, and which Birman also said was made of brick. Birman had the benefit of Aerial #157 when making his diagram.

tiferet bachurim on aerial


Likely location of Tiferet Bachurim on 1945 aerial George Birman town plan (portion)

Illustration 4

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.  The Gorzd Memorial Book (Illustration 1 above) 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, and the building to its southwest is labeled "Shul." 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. This appears to be the topmost building shown in the diagram in the Gorzd Memorial Book.

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
Photo taken from basketball court
Looking north towards likely site of Tiferet Bachurim (2009)
Street running east-west identified by a resident in 2008 as Synagogue Street.
Street is shown on 1923 plan of synagogue ("Sinagogus g-ve [street]"), Illustration 2A
Looking east on SynagogueStreet (2009)
(yellow rectangles inserted for privacy)

Illustration 5

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


Illustration 6

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. Slightly different comparisons of the map and aerial are shown farther below on this page.

synagogue from 158
three buildings located
Portion of Aerial #158 (January 16, 1945) 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) (?)
Illustration 7

Enlarged view

four buildings on aerial
Illustration 8

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 Illustration 3 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, Illustration 3 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. 

The plans for the Sveksna synagogue (constructed 1928) are highly similar to the Gargzdai plans.  Additional Sveksna plans formerly posted online (see Illustration 15 below) show the ark on the east wall, and the women's gallery on the west side upper floor.

If the identification of the new synagogue/Beit Midrash on the aerial photo #158 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 the ark 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

Illustration 9

Animation showing at 3 second intervals:

    1) portion of Aerial #158;
      2) same portion of Aerial #158 enhanced by unsharp mask function of graphics program;
        3) Plans of Gargzdai synagogue/Beit Midrash, reversed from east to west, superimposed on likely location.

      Notes: High resolution scan of Aerial #158 was obtained from U.S. National Archives.

      Small white dot at upper right corner of synagogue building, and several less bright dots NW of the bright dot, may be airborne barrage balloons. No dots appear here in Aerial #157, photographed a moment before.

      synagogue location on 158
      Illustration 10

      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)

        The  animations below aid in showing the present location of the sites of the religious buildings.

        Illustration 11

        Animation comparing Aerial #158, current map from, and satellite photo from google earth
        Map from OpenStreetMap OpenStreetMap contributors
        copyright information for OpenStreetMap

        Note: Exact alignment is impossible, so correspondence between photos and map is only approximate.

157 and 158 and google earth
Illustration 12

Animation comparing combined aerials #157 and #158, and google earth

By combining #157 and #158 into a single image, more of the town can be shown, in an attempt to align with satellite image from google earth.

Below is a larger scale alignment. This was not created by magnifying any portion of the above alignments, but instead by attempting to match features on two photos covering a more limited area near the market and synagogue area.

large scale marketl
Illustration 13

The primary points used for the above alignment were the path to the west of the presumed Tiferet Bachurim, and the principal streets to the south and west. The alignment suggests that the eastern wall of the new synagogue/Beit Midrash was located approximately at the SE corner of the present-day basketball court.

Location of the Ark

possible ark location

Illustration 14

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

The plans for the new 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 in the same year of 1928. Plan below is eastern portion of southern elevation of Sveksna synagogue, originally from Lithuanian archives, previously posted at These Sveksna plans show the ark and steps leading up to it on the eastern wall.


Illustration 15

In comparing the Sveksna elevation with Aerial #158, the base of the steps to the ark in Sveksna is of similar size to the white square at the east wall shown on Aerial #158.

sveksna elevation on 158
Illustration 16

Animation showing at three second intervals:

    1) new synagogue/Beit Midrash on aerial # 158;
      2) sharpened with unsharp mask function of graphics program;
    3) add elevation of Sveksna synagogue (without roof), to show size of base of steps leading to ark

Note: the Sveksna plans do not show dimensions, so the above animation was creating assuming the Sveksna synagogue is approximately the same length as the Gargzdai synagogue/Beit Midrash. The Gargzdai synagogue plans show its length to be 21.5 m, while the Google Earth measuring tool shows the Sveksna synagogue building (existing at the time of the satellite photo) to have a length of approximately 22 m.

Comparison with current map and satellite photo suggests this centerpoint of the eastern wall of the new Gargzdai synagogue/Beit Midrash, now may lie near the southeastern corner of basketball court, at the far side of the court shown below. (Yellow rectangles in photo hide individuals for privacy.)  Standard international width for a basketball court is 15 m., a measurement which is confirmed for this court using the Google Earth measuring tool. Therefore, if this placement of the building is correct, some of the building (approximately, the women's gallery and area beneath it) may have been at the location of the grass in foreground, but the major portion of the building may have been on the present day basketball court.

Perhaps some readers of this site may try their own comparisons, to test the placement set forth above.

Ground penetrating radar might be used to conduct a non-invasive search for the base of the ark, and other possible remnants of these buildings.

Illustration 17

View of southern portion of basketball court, from west

View from the east: southern basketball hoop visible in gap between cinema (on left) and Klaipeda Region Tourist Information Center on right, at site of Klaipeda Region Tourist Information Center

Sources of inaccuracy in matching 1945 aerial photos to present-day satellite photo:

1.   Every camera lens causes some distortion.
2.   Cameras may not have been precisely vertical. The google earth photo is angled towards the north, because the south faces of the buildings are visible.The German aerial photos may have been subject to pitch or roll of the aircraft.
3.   Even if German camera was vertical, only one point was directly below it.
4.   Due to destruction and reconstruction within Gargzdai, there are few fixed "control points" which can be definitively aligned between the two photographs. See discussion of control points below.
5.   Changes in elevation on ground can cause change in apparent location in aerial photo, for example in Minijos gatve descending to river.
6.   In lining up photos using a graphics program, transformations such as scaling and rotation cause distortion in the photos. For this reason, rotation and resizing should be accomplished online within the satellite view, to the extent possible, because distortion is less than in transformations within the graphics program.
7.   Curvature of the earth means that every map or aerial photo is an approximation.This problem of course increases with larger distances, and may, for example, interfere with precise alignment of photos #157 and #158 to make a composite.

In aligning two photos, "control points" are the fixed points which can be identified in both photographs and are used to perform the the alignment. Possible control points to align 1945 and satellite photos, and potential problems with their use, are as follows:

Photo from 1945 aerial Control Point - link to current photo
Potential Problems in Using Point to Align 1945 Aerials with Satellite Image
Catholic cemetery and angled interior road. Cemetery is some distance away from religious buildings.
From Aerial #158:
Chapel east of church
(at right center); partially obscured shadow of bell tower (at bottom center)
The photos seem to show the plan of the chapel has somewhat changed since 1945, in that it was longer than it is today.
From Aerial #157:
Bell tower south of church, casting shadow towards north
View of bell tower on aerial is unclear.
Minijos gatve (street)
Location of cobblestone street unchanged between 1945 and present, but descent of street to lower elevation causes apparent shift in position.

Other streets, corners and paths.
Location of centerlines and edges may have changed with paving and modernization.
Round spot [Well (?)], and circular statue garden east of Klaipeda Regional Tourist Information Center At the present time there is no evidence, other than the location, that the design and placement of the statue garden were connected to the circle appearing on the aerial photographs.
Building identified by current residents as former synagogue While the building seems to closely correspond to this location in the 1945 aerials, using this as a major basis for initial alignments may be a questionable assumption in attempting to prove the location of the religious buildings. May be used with more confidence after likely correspondence is demonstrated.

For information on Sveksna synagogue, which is similar to the Gargzdai plans, see:
  recent photo
  historic photo
  KehilaLinks page for Sveksna
  Index of Jewish Art, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "Synagogue in Sveksna"

Though not as close geographically as Sveksna, the synagogue in Ruzhany, Belarus also resembles the Gargzdai plans:

Former synagogue at Wikimedia commons
Plans at Center for Jewish Art, showing length of approx. 22m

The restored synagogue building on 7 L. Zamenhofo St., Kaunas (first constructed in 1850), pictured at Vikipedija, bears a resemblance to the plans of the Gargzdai synagogue. The restored synagogue is pictured in Rupeikiene, p. 157, and discussed on p. 163. It is also described in the Synagogues of Kaunas.  

Another of Kaunas' thirty-six pre-war synagogues, shown in an aerial photograph on an undated postcard, also somewhat resembles the Gargzdai plans.

Illustration 20

Photo looks west along present day Kestucio gatve. Building at lower left is now located at 26B Gedimino, and is described in the Synagogues of Kaunas.  Pictured here and here on Wikimedia.

The Wooden Shul

As discussed above, the site of the new masonry synagogue/Beit Midrash can be located with considerable confidence on the 1945 aerials. There is a great deal of consistent information to identify one particular spot on the aerials. The major uncertainty is merely how to locate this spot as precisely as possible on present-day satellite photos.

In contrast, the location of the wooden shul on the 1945 aerials poses inconsistencies. There are at least two plausible spots, shown by the blue rectangle and green square below.

wooden shul location

Illustration 21

Location approximately at the blue rectangle is supported by the plot plan of the new synagogue, posted by the Gargzdai Area Museum (see Illustrations 3 and 10 above). This plot plan labels an "existing synagogue" to the southwest of the planned new synagogue.

Location approximately at the green square, and perhaps extending further to the west, seems to be a more likely interpretation of George Birman's town plan (Illustration 4, which orients Klaipedos g. as due E-W, and places the shul beneath the rabbi's residence and school). This location is also supported by the 1939 German firemap.

The discrepancy might be explained by the difference in dates. The synagogue plans were dated 1923, with the new synagogue/Beit Midrash completed in 1928. George Birman (b. 1922) remembered the building as it existed in the 1930's, and the firemap reflected the situation as of August, 1939. The wooden shul could have changed after 1923. Arye Frak, in the Gorzd Memorial Book article "Jewish and Social Religious Life in Gorzd" (translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund), refers to a fire which burned the "small synagogue," apparently during WWI: "After the First World War, the synagogue and Talmud Torah were rebuilt with bricks after the fire, but the area of the small synagogue remained empty." (Some other accounts refer to a devastating fire in 1915, but do not specifically mention burning the synagogue.) Birman reported that a wooden religious building was present during the 1930's, so it had to have been rebuilt at a time unknown to Frak. Perhaps the shul was rebuilt in stages after the 1915 fire, with the first stage, built prior to 1923, shown by the blue rectangle, and the later version shown by the green square.

The diagram in the Gorzd Memorial Book (Illustration 1 above) does not appear to assist in choosing between these two possibilities for locating the wooden shul. However the diagram offers valuable information as to the shul's appearance. Those contributing to the drawing had excellent memories of what the religious buildings looked like, despite inaccuracies in showing the overall layout of the town. Their excellent recollections regarding the buildings themselves is shown by the drawing of the new synagogue/Beit Midrash, which is highly accurate when compared with the posted plans.  The building labelled "shul" shows a horizontal line on the western half of the southern face, about a third of the way up between the ground and bottom of the roof. Because the women's gallery would have been located to the west, this horizontal line might represent an exterior landing leading to the women's gallery, similar to the wooden synagogue in Polaniek, Poland, Yiddish name Plontch.

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.