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Archaeologists expose Torah ark of Vilna synagogue destroyed by Nazis, Soviets

Joint Israeli-Lithuanian six-year excavation in ruins of centuries-old Jewish community center unearths prayer platform, silver pointer used when reading the Torah

The excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania showing the area of the Torah ark and two flights of stairs destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviets, August 2021. (Jon Seligman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
The excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania showing the area of the Torah ark and two flights of stairs destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviets, August 2021. (Jon Seligman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

A joint Israeli and Lithuanian excavation carried out for six years has exposed the Torah ark and bimah (raised prayer platform) of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which was destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust and later razed again by the Soviets, the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement on Thursday.

A school had been built on the premises of the 17th century Vilnius synagogue and its surrounding Jewish communal center, known as the Shulhoyf, which had been burned down by the Nazis after operating for some 300 years.

The Soviets in 1956-1957 destroyed what remained.

“When we arrived to excavate the aron kodesh and the bimah, from which generations of Jews read the Torah scroll for 300 consecutive years, it became clear, unfortunately, that the core of the synagogue had been greatly damaged by Soviet destruction,” the statement quoted Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Justinas Rakas, of the Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos, as saying.

“Still, two impressive staircases, clearly visible in the many images of the synagogue before its destruction, were discovered,” they said.

“In addition, the excavation of the bimah was completed including the entire façade of the bimah and the complete remains of one of the four huge pillars that supported the roof of the Great Synagogue.”

(Hebrew video shows the finds here.)

On Thursday morning, the archaeologists made a new discovery at the site.

“Just this morning, while sifting the soil in front of the aron kodesh, we found a silver yad. The yad is a pointer used to read from the Torah scroll,” the IAA said in its statement, referring to a hand-shaped ornament used to point at the part of the biblical text being read.

A silver ‘Yad’ — a hand-shaped pointer used to read from the Torah scroll — found at the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania, August 2021. (Jon Seligman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Shulhoyf had long been the heart of the Lithuanian Jewish community. It included 12 synagogues and prayer halls, a bathhouse, mikveh ritual baths, a community council building, kosher meat stalls, a famous library named after Lithuanian talmudist Mattityahu Strashun, the Gaon of Vilna’s seminary, and more.

The excavation is a joint venture of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos, the Good Will Foundation, and the Jewish Community of Lithuania. The team of researchers includes Lithuanians, Israelis, and North Americans.

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