The first, wooden synagogue was built in the 18th century on Sinagogos (Iškalos, today Sodų) Street, near the market square and close to the Šešupė River. A new stone synagogue was built on its place in 1795–1803, as an inscription on the building reportedly stated (Yitsḥak Rutenberg, “Kehilat Kalvarie” (Kalvarija community), in Yalkut ma’aravi (Western collection), eds. Herman Rosenthal and Adolph M. Radin, vol. 1 (New York, 1904): 35. Cf. The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 7 (New York and London, 1901–6), 429; Evreiskaia entsiklopediia, 9: 182; Algimantas Miškinis, Lietuvos urbanistikos paveldas ir jo vertybės (Lithuanian urban heritage and its values), vol. 1, Užnemunės miestai ir miesteliai (Sudavian cities and towns) (Vilnius, 1999), 47–53).
Yitsḥak Rutenberg described the synagogue in 1904:
"A great stone building, beautiful and even magnificent from inside and on outside […] The structure built of big stones, expensive stones, with walls two and a half amah [Amaḥ (cubit) is a Biblical measure of 42–44 cm] thick. In the middle, around the bimah, there stand four thick pillars; their heads support […] nine large vaults. In the year 1809 the Torah ark was made, with carved gilded wooden lions, columns, buds and flowers. Since the Prussians ruled the country in 1809, the craftsman put an eagle with one head on the top of the ark, the symbol of Prussian kingdom. It hung on rope stretched through the vault; after a number of years the rope rotted, and the eagle fell to the floor when the hall was empty of people; and it was not returned to its place, because we live under Russia now. The ark stands on two lions, made of wood, and they open their mouths and put out their tongues […]."
"The walls of the building are painted all over, by a painter: lions and deer, all ye beasts of the field [Is. 56:9], sheep and cattle, all plants, all bush of yard and of field, all birds of various kinds. Also, one of the leaders and elders of our community, named Yaakov, son of Shlomo, who understood painting, painted by himself on one wall a house and a courtyard and a flag hanging from the roof of the house, and the characters Y.S. on the flag. This Yaakov […] donated generously to the synagogue, and made the wooden floor of oak boards – wood that does not rot. And in the year 1829 he donated a huge chandelier made of copper, with sixty arms and a large crown above and on the crown the following inscription: סלח לעון איש עבדך יעקב לפ”ק [Forgive the transgressions of the man thy servant Jacob]. The words “the man thy servant Jacob” [from Gen. 32:4, alluding to the donor’s name], add up to [the Jewish year in which it was given, (5)589, that is] 1829."
"The chandelier hangs in the middle of the bimah on two thick ties, and once, several years ago, the branch above the vault, which supported the beam on which the ropes were held, rotted, and the chandelier fell down before people gathered to prayer, and no one was on the bimah. Several arms were broken, but all were restored, and they hung it and strengthened it from above so it would not fall. Yaakov died on the second day of Sukkot, 1838."
On two sides of the building, on the north and south, there are two women’s sections; and a large women’s section was built later above the vestibule. On two sides of the vestibule there are two kloyzn, of the Ḥevrat Tehilim [Psalms Society] and of the Ḥevrat Kabranim [Burial Society], this last one serves as the kahal office as well." (Yitsḥak Rutenberg, “Kehilat Kalvarie” (Kalvarija community), in Yalkut ma’aravi (Western collection), eds. Herman Rosenthal and Adolph M. Radin, vol. 1 (New York, 1904): 35-36).
The synagogue was damaged during WWI and restored immediately afterwards, with significant changes (Pinkas ha-kehilot: lita (Encyclopedia of Jewish communities: Lithuania), ed. Dov Levin (Jerusalem, 1996), p. 591, 594).
The Great Synagogue is currently a ruined roofless building; its roof and the ceiling collapsed in 1992–96. Its walls are ca. 1.50 m thick, built of stone and brick, and plastered. The architecture combines Baroque and Neo-Classicist features.
In 1857 Leopold Salkowski measured the Great Synagogue and drew its ground plan, which shows that the main building was surrounded by annexes from three sides, except the southeast. The ground plan shows an almost square prayer hall that could be accessed by four stairs apparently descending from the vestibule. The prayer hall was surrounded with lower women’s sections from the southwestern and northeastern sides. The northwestern annex included a central vestibule with two entrance doors, with two kloyzn of almost square plan on its sides, equipped with stoves. The first floor above the northwestern annex was a gallery, as the text in the drawing states;20 it was accessed via exterior staircases on the southwestern and northeastern façades.
The segment-headed openings connecting the women’s section with the prayer hall are shown on the plan and currently can be seen in the lower part of the southwestern wall. Four pillars surrounding the bimah (strangely enough not shown on Sałkowski’s ground plan) were situated in the central part of the hall, thus dividing its space into nine bays. The traces of lunettes discernible above the windows provide evidence of the former vaulting of the hall. A postcard from the early 20th century shows the Great Synagogue surrounded with one- and two-storey annexes above which there rises an impressive Baroque gable. The building was covered with a high roof of ceramic tiles.
After the damage of WWI, the Great Synagogue underwent major reconstruction: the annexes on the three sides were razed, the openings that connected them with the prayer hall bricked up, and the building was reduced to the size of the prayer hall. The women’s section was installed on a new U-shaped gallery inside the hall; a staircase was placed in its northern corner. The original vaults were dismantled. Above the pillars new arches reinforced with iron bars were made in order to support a flat wooden ceiling over the prayer hall, and the synagogue was covered with a low half-gabled roof. A new Torah ark in an Egyptian-stylized Art Nouveau was erected.
Today (2007) the former Great Synagogue has an almost square plan (ca. 18 x 20 m), is built of bricks and stone, and plastered. All the façades are similar: they are pierced by segment-headed windows in their upper parts, and crowned with a molded cornice. The rectangular doorway (today bricked-up) is situated in the center of the northwestern façade facingSodų Street. A segment-headed door in the western side of the northeastern wall leads to the stairs towards the women’s gallery. An oculus is set in the center of the southeastern façade. It used to shed light upon the Torah ark, and its glazing bars were shaped as a Star of David. The prayer hall was thus lit by twelve windows, eleven of which were segment-headed, and the twelfth an oculus.
Inside, pilasters divide the walls into three bays. Three pillars surrounding the bimah (the fourth was pulled down), the Torah ark and the women’s gallery have survived. All these are built of brick and plastered. Remnants of blue paint of varied tints are visible on the walls and the central pillars; here and there planks of old floors can be noticed. An obliterated Hebrew verse זה שער לה' צדיקים יבאו בו (“This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous will enter through it,” Ps. 118:20), customarily placed above the entrance to a synagogue, is still visible on the central arch of the arcade supporting the women’s gallery. Four steps ascend to the three-tiered Torah ark. Its lower tier contained the niche for the Torah scrolls, flanked by couples of engaged colonnettes in the 1910s style. The central niche and the side colonnettes are spanned by segment-headed arches. The upper tier is also flanked by coupled engaged colonnettes spanned by a molded archivolt matching the oculus behind it. Crowned Tablets of the Law are set up on this tier.
In the Soviet period, the Great Synagogue was turned into a warehouse, which functioned there until 1981. Garages were attached to its southwestern wall, and removed after 1994. Today (2007) the building is in ruins, rapidly decaying.
(Text from Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, Sergey Kravtsov, Vladimir Levin, Giedrė Mickūnaitė, Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė (eds.), Synagogues in Lithuania. A Catalogue, vol. 1 (Vilnius, 2010)).
Cohen-Mushlin, Aliza, Sergey Kravtsov, Vladimir Levin, Giedrė Mickūnaitė, Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė (eds.), Synagogues in Lithuania. A Catalogue, 2 vols. (Vilnius, 2010-12)