Excavation of destroyed synagogue in Lithuania exposes new findings

Excavation of destroyed synagogue in Lithuania exposes new findings
Imaging of the podium at the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, credit: UAB Inlusion Netforms

In Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, an excavation of its former Great Synagogue has fully exposed the Torah ark and the podium that was destroyed by Nazi-Germany during the Holocaust.

A joint Israeli-Lithuanian excavation expedition, using a ground-penetrating radar test at the site, announced on Thursday that it had made significant discoveries at the site on Thursday at the end of this season of a six-year excavation project.

“Just this morning, while sifting the soil in front of the Aron Kodesh (Torah ark), we found a silver Yad (hand). The Yad is a pointer used to read from the Torah scroll”, the archaeologists from Israel Antiquities Authority and the Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Preservation Institute said. The finding will be exhibited at the local Jewish museum.

Vilnius was in the past known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”.  The Great Synagogue of Vilnius, built in the 17th century in Renaissance-Baroque style, was the major part of a large Jewish centre of religious and community studies. The heart of the Lithuanian Jewish community, it included synagogues and prayer halls, schools, ritual baths, and the community council.

Around 450 seats in the synagogue can be counted, though the number might have doubled during the high holidays. Due to the prohibition to build synagogues higher than churches, a foundation was dug well below street level to create the interior height.  Outside, the synagogue looked to be about three stories high, but inside it reached over four stories.

The synagogue is linked to Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman in the 18th century, known as the Vilna Gaon (the genius of Vilna/Vilnius), a famous Talmudist and author of scientific studies.

Centuries of existence came to an end with the destruction of the Jewish community of Vilnius during the Holocaust. The synagogue, which was sacred to the Jews of Lithuania, was looted and burned by the Nazis, and in 1956-7 its remains were completely destroyed by the Soviet authorities. A modern school was built on the premises.

“When we arrived to carry out the excavations of the interior of the synagogue, it became clear, unfortunately, that the core of the synagogue had been greatly damaged,” said Dr Jon Seligman from the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Still, two impressive staircases, clearly visible in the many images of the synagogue before its destruction, were discovered and are evidence of their existence.”

What distinguishes the synagogue from other synagogues from the period? “The synagogue is a typical baroque nine-bay synagogue,” Dr Seligman replied. “Similar structures with a central podium (bimah) inside four supporting columns and nine vaulted bays existed at other places in Eastern Europe, such as Grodno, Lancut, Kalvarija, Druja, and Slonim.”

Are there plans for a memorial at the site or restoration of the building? “That is a question for Vilnius municipality, the Lithuanian Jewish community and Lithuanian society to decide.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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