Uncovering the Remains of the Historic Synagogue in Vilnius

Did you know that an archaeological excavation in Lithuania has revealed the remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius?

The Great Synagogue of Vilnius

The Great Synagogue of Vilnius was the oldest and most significant monument of Lithuanian Jewry. Originally built in 1573 as a wooden synagogue, it was rebuilt between 1633 and 1635 with a stone structure, and within 100 years after that, converted into a brick building.

Clergy from the Christian Church dictated that synagogues could not be built higher than churches in the area. Therefore, in order to follow the law, the Great Synagogue's floor was set well below the level of the street. While on the outside the synagogue looked three stories tall, inside, it was over five stories high. Unknowingly, the law on the height of synagogues actually saved parts of the Great Synagogue and allowed for its future preservation.

During World War II the Great Synagogue was ransacked, yet, although roofless, the building remained standing. Despite attempts of community members to preserve the remnants of the Great Synagogue in the late 1940s, the Soviets demolished the building during the Communist regime. On top of half of the remains of the synagogue, which were underground, the Soviets built an elementary school called the Vyte Nemunelis School.

The modern elementary school built over the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius

In summer, 2011 a primary excavation was conducted at the Great Synagogue of Vilnius which determined the exact location of the synagogue and uncovered part of the original floor, the top of a pillar which surrounded the bimah, and part of the site of the Torah ark. Additionally, artifacts from the time the synagogue was used, such as bronze ornaments, Torah decorations and bindings of sacred books were also discovered.

Since 2015, each summer a joint team of Lithuanian, Israeli, Canadian and American heritage professionals, together with volunteers and funders, have worked to excavate, preserve and present the remains of the Great Synagogue. In spring, 2021 a documentary titled "The Secrets of the Synagogue" will premiere, chronicling the process to uncover, document and preserve the remains of the destroyed religious institution. The film will highlight the history of the Great Synagogue and share the stories of the professionals, scientists, university students and volunteers who came together to be part of the expedition.

Floor of the Great Synagogue's bimah, revealed during excavation

The archeological discovery of remains of the synagogue and its artifacts, will help raise awareness about the role of Jews in the development, history and culture of Vilnius. Future plans involve creating a Jewish Memorial Center of Vilnius as a monument for the Great Synagogue and the centuries old pre-World War II Jewish community of Vilnius.

By: Madison Jackson