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Radar reveals buried grand synagogue of Vilnius

Lithuanian and Israeli archaeologists find remains of 17th century house of worship burned by Nazis and covered up by Soviets

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Archaeologists conducting a Ground Penetrating Radar survey at the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania, June 2015. (Jon Seligman, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
Archaeologists conducting a Ground Penetrating Radar survey at the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania, June 2015. (Jon Seligman, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

A team of Israeli and Lithuanian archaeologists have revealed remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius using ground-penetrating radar, 70 years after the building and its surrounding structures were burned by the Nazis, the Israel Antiques Authority said on Wednesday.

The survey, led by Jon Seligman from the IAA and Zenonas Baubonis of the the Culture Heritage Conservation Authority of Lithuania, scanned the ground at the site in June.

The researchers found evidence that parts of the synagogue structure may still exist below the surface, along with Jewish ritual baths, known as mikvahs.

“When you talk about the synagogue you have to talk about the whole complex,” Seligman told The Times of Israel. “We have a good understanding of the synagogue and a poor understanding of the complex.”

An excavation of the site, which is partially covered by a school, is scheduled for 2016, and the uncovered remains are to become a memorial for the Jewish community of Vilnius, known to Jews as Vilna, that was decimated during the Holocaust.

Lithuanian authorities have shown “great enthusiasm for the project,” Seligman said, and it was “well received.”

Archaeologists and student volunteers from Lithuania and Israel, along with volunteers from Jewish communities around the world, are to carry out the excavation next year.

Ground Penetrating Radar scan showing an anomaly likely to be a ritual bath of the Great Synagogue of Vilna. (Jon Seligman, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
Ground Penetrating Radar scan showing an anomaly likely to be a ritual bath of the Great Synagogue of Vilna. (Jon Seligman, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Seligman said that although a small part of the remains had been researched in the past, the team began a year and a half ago to conduct a more comprehensive survey.

The June survey, funded mostly by Seligman with a small grant from the US State Department, was the team’s first season at the site. Future work will require more funding, and the team is looking for sponsors to cover the costs.

The synagogue was constructed during the 1600s in a Renaissance-Baroque style, although there is evidence that the site was used for Jewish worship as far back as the 15th century. It became a focus for the community, and additional structures clustered around it, including a dozen synagogues, the community council, kosher meat stalls, the Strashun library, and a collection of ritual baths.

In total, the complex extended over an area of about two and a half acres.

The synagogue was also for many years the seat of learning for the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), a rabbi who was one of the leading Jewish figures of Lithuanian Jewry.

In 1941, the Nazis burned and ransacked the building and only the shell and interior survived the war. However, during the 1950s, the Soviets tore down the remains and built the schoolhouse, which covers about one-third of the original plot.

Archaeologists are pinning hopes on a peculiarity of the synagogue’s construction that may have helped preserve some of the interior — at the time it was built, bylaws limited the height of structures to just three floors. To get around the restriction, the two lower levels of the synagogue were built underground, so that the floor of the main prayer hall was two meters below street level.

The Holy Ark of the Great Synagogue in Vilna, 1920-1930. (Wikimedia/public domain)
The Holy Ark of the Great Synagogue in Vilna, 1920-1930. (Wikimedia/public domain)

“Much of the floor levels are still there, and anything underground, especially the mikvaot,” Seligman explained, a reference to the practice of constructing the Jewish ritual baths as pools below ground level.

Future plans may include relocating the school, although for the time being the archaeologists are focusing on surveying the site with a view to establishing the memorial, Seligman said.

Although there has been talk of rebuilding the synagogue, Seligman pointed out that with only 2,500 Jews left in Vilna, there would be little use for the renewed prayer house.

“The question is, who would sponsor that,” he said.

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