Archaeologists rediscover a historic synagogue destroyed in WWII

Once the most magnificent monument to Litvak Jewry, a great synagogue destroyed by the Nazis has been rediscovered using ground penetrating radar. Excavations are scheduled for next year.

In 1944, the city of Vilna in Lithuania was under the grip of Nazi occupation. Like so many other Jewish communities throughout Europe at the time, citizens of Vilna became part of the Nazi “final solution” — the holocaust —  including the destruction of their holy sites. Among the kosher meat stands, miqva’ot (ritual baths), and the famous Strashun rabbinical library, the most magnificent of these sites was the Great Synagogue and the Shulhof of Vilna. The synagogue was built in the 17th century in the Renaissance-Baroque style, and was burned to the ground in 1944 with the rest of the monuments to Jewish heritage in Vilna. In 1964, the Soviets demolished what was left and built a school over part of the foundation.

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 The Great Synagogue of Vilna as it stood in 1934.

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Recently, however, archaeological efforts to locate the remains of the synagogue have led teams to use ground penetrating radar to identify its long-buried features. The results revealed surviving sections of the synagogue and possible remains of associated mikva’ot. They plan to initiate excavations next year. The research is a joint effort between the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Cultural Heritage Conservation Authority of Lithuania (CHCAL), with Jon Seligman (IAA), Zenonas Baubonis (CHCAL), and Richard Freund from the University of Hartford leading the project. The researchers hope to coordinate efforts of an international community of Jewish, Israeli and Lithuanian volunteers to expose the remains for study and public display, which will stand as a monument to the destruction of the entire Jewish community of Vilna.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority is encouraging sponsorship and participation in the project. Individuals interested in participating or supporting the efforts may do so by contacting the AIA.

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Mark Hallum

Mark Hallum is a staff writer for Popular Archaeology Magazine.