Vilnius Municipality, Goodwill Foundation, Lithuanian Jewish Community Sign Memorandum on Great Synagogue

Vilnius Municipality, Goodwill Foundation, Lithuanian Jewish Community Sign Memorandum on Great Synagogue

The Vilnius city municipality, the Goodwill Foundation and the Lithuanian Jewish Community have signed a memorandum for commemorating the Vilnius Great Synagogue site by mid-2026. The synagogue site and surrounding area which was home to the synagogue complex will become a Vilnius Great Synagogue memorial square with a Lithuanian Jewish Community information center telling the story of the grand synagogue complex to the wider society.

“Many Vilnius residents know why Vilnius is called the Jerusalem of the North. Faded inscriptions in Hebrew, commemorative plaques and monuments on and around buildings in the former Vilnius ghetto recall the history of Jewish spirituality and learning. We have agreed how we will create a new center of attraction for Lithuanians and foreigners at the site of the Great Synagogue destroyed by the Soviets,” Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius said.

Archaeological investigations of the Great Synagogue site began circa 2010. Archaeologists at the digs discovered part of the bimah, the foundations for two of its columns, the two mikvot ritual bath sites, the location of the large external wall at the back of the synagogue and a portion of the original flooring in the main chamber of worship. They also discovered inscriptions engraved on the walls next to where the bimah stood, naming people and quoting from the Book of Genesis and lines from hymns.

The exact date of construction of the Great Synagogue is still shrouded in mystery. Some historians believe it was built after 1633 when Władysław IV Vasa, aka Ladislaus IV, the king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania, granted a charter to Jews to create a Jewish quarter in Vilnius. The architect or architects of the synagogue are unknown.

The Great Synagogue in Vilnius was one of the largest Jewish religious institutions in Eastern Europe. It wasfamous as a Jewish spiritual and educational center, leading to Vilnius being called the Jerusalem of the North. The synagogue building was 25 meters long, 22.3 meters wide and 12.1 meters high, with another 2 meters below ground level. It was claimed this synagogue surpassed all others in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in terms of size and beauty. Some sources say it held up to 5,000 people.

During World War II the Great Synagogue and surrounding buildings in the Shulhoyf complex were heavily damaged. Between 1955 and 1957 what remained of these buildings was razed to the ground. In 1964 a kindergarten was built on the site of the Great Synagogue.

Photographs by Saulius Žiūra.