Ziezmariai: A Small Town with a Big Synagogue

If you’re considering easy day trips from Vilnius, you may want to dedicate a couple of hours to Zeizmariai. This quintessential Lithuanian town is thick with history, including Jewish history, and is not often visited by tourists. However, here, you’ll find a synagogue being restored, traditional wooden houses, a cultural center, and the market square.

view of a river and town from the porch of a building
The Ziezmariai Cultural Center is a unifying element of the town. Photo by The Northern Vox

Ziezmariai History

Ziezmariai dates back to the Middle Ages. Nearby, the Battle of Streva, named for the river flowing by the town, took place. This battle of 1348 saw a class between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a pagan nation, and the German Teutonic Knights, who represented Christianity. The Lithuanian forces saw significant loss of life, while reports (or legends) say that the Teutonic Knights suffered barely a scratch.

a red-brick church is nestled between colorful wooden houses
Ziezmariai, in addition to colorful wooden houses, also had a red-brick church of last-century design. Photo by The Northern Vox

Ziezmariai was at first only recorded due to the manor house located there, but it eventually evolved into a town. Ziezmariai continued to grow in the centuries that followed, with churches and schools built to accommodate a growing population. Its proximity to both Vilnius and Kaunas also contributed to its growth.

Unfortunately, Ziezmariai also suffered devastation in the form of fires and destruction by both the Swedish army and Napoleonic forces.

Today, however, visitors can see what remains of the town and can be heartened that interest in it has been renewed with the restoration of the 19th-century wooden synagogue there.

The Jewish Population of Ziezmariai and the Synagogue

Residents of the town included those of different faiths—Tatar Muslims, Russian Old Believers, and the Karaite from Crimea, the latter who also are famous for settling in Trakai.

A wooden Jewish synagogue at the end of a drive
The Ziezmariai synagogue is undergoing restoration. Photo by The Northern Vox

However, maybe most prevelant is the Jewish history here. Anyone who visits should take note of the wooden synagogue, currently undergoing refurbishment. Originally, there were three synagogues in the town.

The Ziezmariai synagogue is the largest surviving wooden synagogue in Lithuania—only 14 exist in total. It was built in the middle of the 19th century. It served as a place of worship, a community center, and a place of learning.

interior of a wooden synagogue in a state of being repaired
The synagogue in Ziezmariai has been under reconstruction for several years. Photo by The Northern Vox

The wooden structure was used to hold the Jewish community of Ziezmariai, 4,000 members of which were later murdered in the forest, during WWII.

Now it is a part of the European Route of Jewish Heritage. The restoration exterior part of the synagogue has been completed, while the interior—the men’s and women’s prayer rooms—is still to be finished. The synagogue, once it is completed, will not be a working synagogue; instead, it will serve as a cultural monument and concert venue.

You’ll also see wooden houses in Ziezmariai, many of which belonged to members of the Jewish population. A Jewish cemetery is also located here.

In 1941, Jewish inhabitants of Ziezmariai were killed in the nearby forest.

A bulletin board with photos and a typed personal story
A personal story related to WWII hangs on a board in the Ziezmariai synagogue. Photo by The Northern Vox

What Else to See in Ziezmariai

Ziezmariai is small, so it’s relatively easy to see the main sights.

On the main square is the Freedom Monument, which was first built in 1932 and, after it was destroyed by the Soviets, was rebuilt in 1991 after the second independence.

The Church of St. James the Apostle was built in the early 20th century and is a red-brick structure that replaces many iterations of the church in the town. These previous churches, made of wood, suffered from fire or destruction during military incursions.

A signpost indicating the directions of different local sights
The various sights of Ziezmariai are in a close range. Photo by The Northern Vox

The Ziezmariai Cultural Center hosts concerts and exhibitions. If it open, those who work there may be able to answer your questions about the town.

You can also pay a visit to the unassuming Ziezmariai manor.

While Ziezmariai is small, it’s a worthy stop on your further exploration of Lithuanian cities.

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