Archaeologists Find Holiest Part of Vilnius Great Synagogue Razed by Soviets

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AFP) — For decades, little did the principal of a kindergarten in Lithuania’s capital realize that her office stood on top of a sacred part of Vilnius’s 17th century Jewish temple, once famous across Europe.

An international team of archaeologists announced THursday the discovery of the most revered part of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, Lithuania’s major Jewish shrine before it was destroyed by Nazi and Soviet regimes.

Installed in the 18th century, the Baroque bimah was found under the former kindergarten and primary school built by the Soviets on top of the demolished synagogue in the 1950s.

Following this discovery, Vilnius authorities pledged to demolish the school building in a couple of years and properly commemorate the synagogue by 2023.

International Team

The bimah was found by an international team of experts from Lithuania, Israel and the United States.

“We have found the bimah, the central prayer platform which was in Tuscan Baroque style. It was one of the central features of the synagogue,” Israeli archeologist Jon Seligman, leading the research work, told BNS. “It is really a very exciting development. When we talk about the presentation of the site to the public in the future, this will be one of the central features of the display that will be shown to the public.”

The two-step Baroque Bimah had four Tuscan and eight Corinthian columns, and parts of these columns were also found during excavation.

Earlier the archeologists also uncovered parts of the mikveh, or ritual bath, complex on the northern side of the site. Digging revealed multi-colored floor tiles and green oven tiles. Last year the team uncovered the female mikveh, this year the male mikveh.

Reflection of Jewish Life

The Great Synagogue of Vilnius was one of the most important Jewish centers from the late 16th century until WWII.

The Great Synagogue of Vilnius was built in 1633 on the foundations of an older 16th-century synagogue. The synagogue was damaged by bombing during the war and its remains were flattened and a two-story kindergarten was built on top of it in the 1950s, later becoming a primary school.

“It’s not only an archeological discovery. It will help to better understand the history of Lithuanian Jews, the ideology of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and how fast you can destroy everything,” Faina Kukliansky, chairwoman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, told BNS.

Research work at the synagogue has been taking place since 2011 is partly funded by the Goodwill Foundation.

Ready for Jubilee

Lithuania has been holding discussions for several years now on how to commemorate the synagogue, with proposals ranging from exhibiting uncovered fragments under glass to rebuilding the synagogue and opening a museum.

The school building was vacated last year, and now Vilnius authorities plan to demolish it in a few years but until then they plan to lease the building for creative workshops.

Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius says the synagogue will be commemorated over the next five years before 2023, when Vilnius will mark its 700th birthday.

“We’ll look for practical forms of expression during architectural workshops. The archaeological research helps us to understand how much of it has remained. This creates good conditions for showing the bimah, the columns, the flooring, the walls to the public,” the mayor said. “We can get a great picture of our history. The goal is to have this happen by the 700th anniversary of Vilnius.”

There were over 150 synagogues in Vilnius before WWII. Almost the whole Jewish community in Vilnius was annihilated during the Holocaust when the Nazis occupied Lithuania. Now there’s only one synagogue in the Lithuanian capital.

Full story here.