Known as the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania,’ Vilna was the heart of Litvak Jewry in the 17th century. The Great Synagogue together with Vilna’s entire Jewish community was destroyed by Nazi and Soviet forces during World War II.

Excavations to uncover the Great Synagogue in Vilna (Vilnius) Lithuania began in 2011. The excavation, a joint effort by The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos, the Good Will Foundation, and the Jewish Community of Lithuania, seeks to memorialize Vilna’s Jewish community through exposing and preserving their central shrine: the Great Synagogue.

The magnificent synagogue was part of a communal complex which included twelve synagogues and batei madrash (study halls). This center of Torah study also included a council building, Kosher meal stalls, and the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, and others. Constructed between 1633 and 1635 in the Renaissance-Baroque style, the synagogue was used for several hundred years until its destruction 

The preliminary excavation in 2011, conducted by Lithuanian archaeologist Zenonas Baubonis exposed significant portions of the Synagogue’s structure and verified that future excavations would yield productive results. Accordingly, the second season of excavation in 2016-2017 uncovered two mikveh, or ritual baths, and a public bathhouse used by the Jewish community. The two mikva’ot date to the 20th century and had tiled walls and floors.

A team of Israeli, Lithuanian and American archaeologists unearthed the remains of two ritual baths. Video: Saulius Berzinis

The 2018 excavation, led by Dr. Jon Seligman of the IAA and Justinas Račas of the Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos, succeeded in revealing the massive external wall of the synagogue. Moreover, part of the bimah was also revealed, perhaps the holiest part of the synagogue. It was from the bimah that the Torah was read for three centuries before its destruction by the Nazis. Constructed in the 18th century, the two-tiered bimah platform was donated by the noted Jewish benefactor known by his acronym as the Yesod. Fragments of the bimah’s four Corinthian and eight Tuscan columns were also recovered. 

Revealing the  bimah. Photo: Jūratė Raugalienė

Revealing the bimah. Photo: Jūratė Raugalienė

After the synagogue’s destruction, the Soviets built a school on the site. Within the next several years the school will be demolished and in its place will be raised a building to commemorate the synagogue and display its relics. The Mayor of Vilnus, Remigijus Simasius, told AFP news that they hope to accomplish this project by 2023 in time for Vilnus’ 700th birthday.

Dr. Seligman (IAA) pointing out the remains of the Bimah to Remigijus Simasius, the Mayor of Vilnius.

Dr. Seligman (IAA) pointing out the remains of the Bimah to Remigijus Simasius, the Mayor of Vilnius.

Please consider making a donation to support the recovery and restoration of this precious building. More than just an an excavation, this project memorializes the Jewish community in Vilna and Lithuania, and the persecution they underwent through the second World War.