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Use our multimedia maps, and explore the family pictures, archival material, and personal stories of 21 Jewish Holocaust survivors to get a unique insight into Europe’s rich Jewish heritage, and to discover sites of Jewish life in towns in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.
While Vilnius was once home to over 100 synagogues, the Choral Synagogue is the only active synagogue that currently serves the city’s remaining Jewish population. The call to build this synagogue came at the height of the Haskalah movement, otherwise known as the Enlightenment period in the 1830s. By 1846, a plot of land was given to the maskilim, Enlightenment thinkers that needed a house of prayer, and in 1903, construction was completed for the building, which was then called Tohorat HaKodesh.
The Romanesque-Moorish style building was the center of religious life for thousands of Jews in Vilnius for the first half of the 20th century. Most of the other synagogues in Vilnius were completely or partly destroyed during the Nazi occupation and subsequent Soviet rule. Following the Second World War, the synagogue was converted into a metal factory, which caused a great deal of structural damage due to the vibrations from the machines that were used by workers.
Ranana Malkhanova, who gave an interview to Centropa in 2005, explained how her uncles in the United States would use the synagogue to send her food and other goods in the postwar period: “They found out somehow that we were alive, but they didn’t know our address and decided to send the parcels to the address of the Vilnius synagogue. Many people did the same at that time. The synagogue was a kind of information center. No efforts were made by anyone to find us, though almost all the Vilnius Jews who had survived knew each other. Our parcels were misappropriated and we didn’t get them… The synagogue assumed its obligation for the reimbursement of the lost parcels. They gave out size 40 boots while I was a size 35, and some navy-blue coats, out of which my mother fixed me a winter coat. Since that time we started getting regular parcels from our relatives.”
The synagogue was restored and reopened in 2010, following donations from international organizations and the local Jewish community, and now holds regular religious services.
Fania Brantsovskaya remembers how important religious life was for her family, and how these values began to slowly diminish throughout the Soviet era. “My grandparents were moderately religious. They followed traditions because they were brought up this way and they couldn’t imagine it any different. My parents got married under a chuppah at the synagogue and had a traditional Jewish wedding. It couldn’t have been otherwise in Jewish families at the time. Our family celebrated Jewish holidays and went to the synagogue. People raised their children to respect traditions. However, the children were a new generation, growing up during World War I and the Revolution in Russia in 1917. Almost all of their children became atheists [due to the Soviet regime which denounced religion].”