Summer Dig Ends at the Groyse Shul in Vilnius

by Geoff Vasil

This summer’s archaeological dig at the Great Synagogue site in Vilnius wrapped up in the early evening of Friday, July 21, with volunteers working right up to the last minute.

This summer’s dig is the second by an international team led by the Israeli Antiquities Authority’s Dr. Jon Seligman and Hartford professor of Jewish history Richard Freund. The composition of workers and volunteers was significantly different this summer; only Shuli of Israeli Antiquities appeared again amid a group of others from Canada, Israel and the United States. Mantas Daubaras remained the chief Lithuanian archaeologist at the site and this year there were significant numbers of Lithuanian volunteers, almost all of them apparently university students. This year the focus was exclusively on the Groyse Shul or Great Synagogue site, whereas last year the Ponar Holocaust mass murder site was also part of the project, as documented recently in Owen Palmquist’s good documentary Holocaust Escape Tunnel, which aired on the PBS program NOVA earlier this spring. The lead archaeologists attended a Lithuanian screening of the documentary at the Tolerance Center a week before the end of their work at the Shulhoyf in Vilnius.

This summer there seemed to be more local visitors to the site than last. One couple came in and the wife descended right into a dug out quadrant and roamed around in it for five minutes before Dr. Seligman asked her to stand back from the excavation. She protested she had many archaeologist friends and knew how to act at digs, and added she was born next door over, and pointed to a building nearby. Her husband wanted to leave but she came over and engaged me in fairly good English, talking about what she remembered from her childhood, saying she was born in 1961.

Another couple who appeared to be local Vilnius Jews took a very keen interest in the site and looked over everything, asking me questions about mikves and the original floor plan I was unable to answer.

Later an elderly Lithuanian woman appeared to have an ax to grind and asked pointed questions about what was there before the synagogue and why that wasn’t being investigated.

Last summer the team uncovered what they thought could be part of the mikve, or ritual bathhouse, located behind the actual synagogue. They uncovered a vaulted brickwork ceiling and sent a go-pro camera inside, which appeared to show an old hot-water heater. This year they expanded the area around that find by more than double, uncovered another vaulted brick roof and what looks sort of like a modern shower space, with yellow and white bathroom tiles and a drain. They also dug a significant plot at the other side of what is now a school playground which appeared to reach down to the stratum of the corner foundation of the synagogue.

Mantas Daubaras and another Lithuanian archaeologist spread out around the yard taking measurements with surveying equipment while Josie of Canada’s newish Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia, and an Israeli girl began untangling cables and setting up stakes for one last ERT, which means electric resistivity tomography, basically zapping the ground and mapping resistance to get a peek at what might be interesting objects and spaces. A middle-aged man with a New York accent directed the placement and alignment of the stakes while two Lithuanian girls tied themselves together using a separate cable of the same type and stood around looking like embarrassed prisoners of war.

The sky began to cloud over in a more serious way and I asked professor Freund if rain would ruin the ERT.

“No, actually it makes it work much better!” he said enthusiastically.

A young Lithuanian archaeologist began hauling garbage to a dumpster on the site. He introduced himself as Karolis and asked me to join the whole team at a plastic table which suddenly appeared, laden with Lithuanian beers and fruit juice and plastic cups. The entire team circled the table and Dr. Seligman thanked everyone for all their help. Then they asked the woman who appeared to be the summer caretaker at the school to take several portraits of the entire team using different cameras. Karolis and the Lithuanian girls began discussing meeting up at the Peronas bar at the Vilnius train station, while Josie and the other students from abroad talked about what time they would join them, following Sabbath at the Choral Synagogue and a dinner at an Armenian restaurant.

I asked Mantas Daubaras if they had made any amazing discoveries in the summer. He said they had, but then looked offended by the question, said this was not the time to discuss it, and walked away. Dr. Seligman was more forthcoming and confirmed they had made many discoveries, the most important being confirmation last summer’s mikve really was a mikve and the excavation of another mikve. He said they were in a separate building, not part of the synagogue proper.

Professor Freund maintained the location of the bima was in the front yard, on the other side of the school. “Do you think the street, Jewish street, is in the same place it was?” I asked. “More or less, yes,” he said. So wasn’t the Strashun library there in the front yard? It was on the second floor of a fore-building, he confirmed, underneath which operated businesses. “That’s why we found so many animal bones,” he added.