Archaeologists uncover the heart of Nazi-razed Vilnius synagogue
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Under Nazi occupation, 95 percent of Lithuanian Jewry was murdered; Soviet rule drove out many who survived

Archaeologists uncover the heart of Nazi-razed Vilnius synagogue

Discovery of ritual baths adds another dimension to reconstruct daily life of slaughtered community known as the 'Jerusalem of Lithuania'

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archaeologists have uncovered the heart of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, which was razed by the Nazis 70 years ago. The discovery of the ritual baths, considered a vital part of an active Jewish community, is the most exciting find in this second year of excavations at the site.

The Great Synagogue is actually a large compound that was considered the beating heart of Lithuanian Jewry for some 300 years. It contained the renowned Strashun Library, 12 synagogues, Jewish schools, ritual baths, the local Jewish community council building, and even kosher food places. When Nazi soldiers occupied the city in June 1941, these Jewish buildings were burned to the ground.

Vilnius, a community of some 70,000 when World War II broke out, supported over 100 synagogues and half a dozen Jewish dailies and was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Under Nazi occupation, 95 percent of Lithuanian Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust and Soviet rule drove out many who survived. In the 1950s, the synagogue compound was turned into a basketball court and kindergarten.

After the Nazis destroyed the compound, three pieces from the Great Synagogue of Vilna survived: a bas-relief with the Ten Commandments, a door from an Ark where Torah scrolls were kept, and a table upon which the scroll was read. All other traces of the compound virtually disappeared.

In 2015, a team of archaeologists led by Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dr. Jon Seligman and Prof. Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey and found promising indications of where the underground ruins of the buildings still stood.

In 2016, the excavations uncovered the underground rooms and this summer, the bathhouse and ritual baths continued to be excavated.

The ritual baths of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, excavated by a team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archaeologists, summer 2017. (John Seligman/IAA)
The ritual baths of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, excavated by a team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archaeologists, summer 2017. (John Seligman/IAA)

“The mikveh was used for the ritual use of all the Jews who went to this synagogue here in the city,” said Seligman, sitting on a concrete lip above a yellow tiled floor in an IAA video taken at the dig site.

“This is the classic form of a mikveh, of a modern mikveh, with the tiling and the concrete steps. The Great Synagogue was not only a community center, it was also a religious center and a place where everyone had to go, multiple times during the day,” said Freund.

“But the mikveh was a place where people performed a ritual which was unique to the Jews. It was for some people a monthly, for some people a weekly, and for some people a daily ritual, that they would come to the mikveh to purify themselves in order to pray,” said Freund.

The ritual baths of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, excavated by a team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archaeologists, summer 2017. (John Seligman/IAA)
The ritual baths of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, excavated by a team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archaeologists, summer 2017. (John Seligman/IAA)

The archaeologists have also discovered the “treasury,” where natural water was stored for kosher use in the ritual bath.

The discovery of the ritual baths, said the scholars, gives another dimension to the reconstruction of the daily life of a slaughtered Jewish community.

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