While the Nazis destroyed many synagogues during World War II, the Great Synagogue of Vilna was a tremendous loss, as it had served as the spiritual center of the Jewish community in Vilnius from the 1600s until the 1940s, said Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority who is leading the international team carrying out the excavations.
The synagogue was burned down during the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944, when most of the tens of thousands of Jews who lived in Vilnius were murdered, Seligman said.
After World War II, when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, the ruined synagogue was leveled and then built over, first with a kindergarten and later with a primary school. Over the past few years, archaeologists have surveyed the site with ground-penetrating radar, hoping to discover and study remnants of the famous synagogue.
That project was a success: During the recent excavations, archaeologists located the bimah of the Great Synagogue, along with some of the floor tiles surrounding that raised platform, Seligman said.
The bimah is where passages from the Torah, the Jewish holy book, were read aloud. Congregants may have marveled at this structure during services: The bimah was made with green and brown bricks, in a Tuscan Baroque style that was popular when the Great Synagogue was built in the 1630s, Seligman said.
'Jerusalem of the North'
Jewish people began moving into Vilnius in the 14th century, when the king of Lithuania gave them permission to live there, Seligman said. The site now being excavated has been used as a synagogue by the city’s Jewish community since the 1440s.
At first, all the buildings in the city were made of wood, including the synagogue. But in the 1600s, architects were brought to Vilnius from Italy and Germany to rebuild the city in brick. The Great Synagogue was built at that time, Seligman said.
During the 17th century, Vilnius attracted many Yiddish-speaking writers and scholars, earning the city the nickname the “Jerusalem of the North,” Seligman said.
The Great Synagogue towered over the streets and alleyways of the Shulhoyf, the name given to the Jewish neighborhood in Vilnius. The synagogue suffered a destructive fire in 1748, but it was rebuilt by benefactors, according to Jewish Heritage Europe, which tracks news about Jewish monuments and heritage sites.
Lithuania’s early Christian authorities may have unknowingly helped protect the lower parts of the synagogue from complete destruction in the 20th century.
“The authorities demanded the synagogue not be higher than the churches in the city,” Seligman said. And so, the floor of the Great Synagogue was built below ground level. That helped protect the lowest levels of the synagogue when the Nazis burned it down in 1941 and Soviet authorities built on the site in the mid-1950s, Seligman said.
Until World War II, about half of Lithuania’s 240,000 Jews lived in Vilnius, but Nazis and their sympathizers killed most of them.
Although the Nazis used concentration camps for the imprisonment and murder of Jews in Western Europe, Jews were forced to live in closed-off ghetto districts in Vilnius and other Eastern European cities.
Death squads of German and Lithuanian paramilitary troops frequently raided the Vilnius ghetto, and by late 1944, up to 70,000 Jews had been shot to death beside mass graves in the Paneriai (or Ponary) Forest a few miles from Vilnius, according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands more perished inside the ghettos and in Nazi work camps.
Seligman said that the past three years of excavations at the Great Synagogue site, by a team of Lithuanian, Israeli and U.S. archaeologists, was paid for mainly by Lithuania’s Good Will Fund, which is funded by compensation from the Lithuanian government for Jewish property seized by the Nazis and then kept by the Soviet regime.
The news agency AFP reported that the bimah and other artifacts from the Great Synagogue will become part of a memorial center on the site of the former school, which closed last year. “The school will be demolished within two years, and we’ll create a respectful site, displaying rich Jewish heritage by 2023, when Vilnius celebrates its 700th birthday,” the mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Simasius, told AFP.
Seligman said that other parts of the Great Synagogue found in the recent excavations included two ritual baths, or mikvahs. And there’s more to come: Archaeologists hope to locate the external walls of the synagogue and excavate its floor level, he said.