Restoration of the historic Great Synagogue in Ludza, Latvia — dating from around 1800 and the oldest surviving synagogue in the country — is nearing completion, with work slated to be finished in early 2016 and a formal rededication planned for the second half of August.
Ilya Lensky, of the of the Jews in Latvia Museum in Riga, has sent us an update on the restoration process as of mid-December, based on information provided by Dr. Pēteris Blūms, the supervising architect of the project and a prominent specialist on wooden architecture.
The building, the only synagogue in Latvia to preserve an inner cupola, has been recently heat insulated and new exterior planking has been put in place. New window casements have been installed, and every day all three stoves are lit to heat the building.
Currently the main attention on the interiors, and the decorative floral ornamentation and coloring and plastering are being restored. Also a new floor is slated to be installed.
Work continues on the grounds, too, where a new fence has been installed, and a new cobblestone pavement laid.
The Great Synagogue was constructed in 1800-1801, and has been remodeled several times. Initially it was a wooden building, but probably in early 20th century it was covered with bricks. Its inner cupola also was probably added around that time.
Lensky reports that as part of the restoration, experts have carried out a dendrochronological analysis of the logs used in building the synagogue, “and they date back to around 1780, possibly originating not from Ludza area, but a bit to southeast. So 1800/01 is the latest possible dating, maybe it’s even earlier, although it has not been reflected in the sources.”
The synagogue was granted the status of national monument in November 2013, and preliminary work on the restoration project started at that time. The funding was obtained from the EEA Grants/Norway Grants program.
As we reported in February 2015, the building will become a museum, with its main sanctuary an exhibition hall. On the ground floor there will be an exhibition dedicated to the Latvian-Israeli documentary film director Herz Frank and his father, the pre-World War II Ludza photographer Wulf Frank. The former women’s gallery will house a permanent exhibition on the history of the Ludza Jewish community, dating back to 18th century, and the Holocaust.
During the Nazi occupation one of the walls of the synagogue was partially destroyed, but it was restored after the WWII. The current interior design and furnishing, including the Ark, probably date to post-war times. During the 1990s the synagogue became derelict, and homeless people found shelter there. Due to lack of maintenance, the wooden structures of the synagogue, standing close on the shore of the lake, were subject to spring floods and started to rot. A new roof was installed in the early 2000s; funding for this was raised by several former residents of the city.
The building was nationalized in 1940 by the Soviets and its restitution to the Jewish community was completed only recently. The community then decided to pass the property to the local municipality.