The Great Synagogue was built on the west side of Targowa Street, a road with many small businesses. The Synagogue entrances were on its southwest elevation facing onto the street. Originally there was a low vaulted granary along the north wall, and in time further single storey rooms were added on the south side which served as a vestibule and gave access onto the street. The original layout is not known as the rooms were later rebuilt several times. Small shops or stalls were added to the eastern wall in the 19th century.
The main structure comprises of a high rectangular building with walls generally 1.5m wide from foundation to the roof eaves (as recorded in our recent survey). This width was a requirement of the Lithuanian authorities as it was seen to be a building that might be used as a fortress. It is 11.5 metres high and the floor is 16 x 13 metres. Our survey indicated that the foundations were sound apart from minor settlement at one corner. This together with the thick walls has prevented the collapse of the structure.
Little is known about the original finishings or the shape of the roof. In the 18th century the community remodelled the building. A pitched roof replaced the original and gables were constructed at each end. The eastern façade was remodelled in a Baroque style with a plaster finish with pillars on each side. Below the pediment, the elevation was widened so as to obscure the single storey additions. The western elevation was given a simpler treatment without any decoration.
The main hall is rectangular in plan. It has a pitched roof supported by a timber structure which in turn is supported by the perimeter walls and the bimah structure. The bimah comprises of a raised platform in the centre of the room with a masonry column at each of its four corners which rise to support a masonry dome over the bimah and which in turn supports the adjoining ceiling and roof structure. The columns are finished in plaster as are all the interior surfaces, walls, columns and ceiling. The ceiling comprises of a series of vaults, more complex than a simple gothic form and might be regarded as Baroque. It is masonry, possibly brick, and is between 100mm and 200mm thick.
The women’s section is a platform on the west side extending across the full width of the Synagogue. Access was probably from the north west corner via a staircase, now demolished, which was external to the main structure. The platform is constructed of rolled steel or iron joists and has a flat iron deck with cast iron baluster poles. It is supported on cast iron columns along one side.
The outstanding feature of the building is the rich interior decoration. A cornice runs around the full interior perimeter at the same height as the platform that forms the women’s section and at the height of the bimah. While the exterior of the Synagogue is simple and unremarkable, internally there are murals full of Jewish symbolism.
The walls are adorned with frescoes. A crown is prominently depicted on one and there is a bas-relief with a book and two lions on either side over the ark. There are murals of musical instruments – two crossed guitars, cello and a harp. The columns to the bimah are highly decorated as well and painted to emulate stone and the underside of the overarching dome is covered and painted in complex raised scrolls with a strong floral theme.
There is little left of the single storey structures that surrounded the main building. They show the alterations made to accommodate their most recent use as shops during the Soviet era. The walls are generally brick and the roof comprised of iron rail sections as beams with flat arch brickwork between. This gives a clue as to when they were last rebuilt, possibly at the same time as the first floor balcony for the womens section, as it too is constructed in metal.
Those interested in further information can visit the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art at the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where detailed architectural drawings are available as well commentary on the architecture.
In December 2020 the Foundation for Jewish Heritage prepared drawings to illustrate the potential of the Synagogue as a memorial to its past and its use as a cultural and educational centre. They are not intended to be a design, but rather to show what remains of the synagogue and indicate how repairs and improvements could be made.
The drawings also include the area around the synagogue and showing more of the Jewish heritage from its surrounds. This
suggests successful restoration of the synagogue is dependent on the City Authorities making access available from the land that is now part of the market.
These drawings can be viewed below.