Lithuanian PM visits remains of Vilnius Great Synagogue

Andrius Kubilius shown various excavated fragments of synagogue; excavations uncover part of original floor, ark from 17th century.

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July 18, 2011 05:32
2 minute read.
A STATUE of the famed Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliezar, on the street named for him.

Vilnus 311. (photo credit: Lynn O’Rourke Hayes)

 
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Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius was shown around the recently uncovered site of the aharon kodesh (Holy Ark) of The Great Synagogue of Vilnius on Friday, which is currently being excavated.

The synagogue was partly destroyed by the Germans during World War II and the remains demolished by Soviet authorities between 1955 and 1957.

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“For us it is very important to bring back an authentic part of Lithuanian history that included the history of the Jewish community,” Kubilius said afterwards.

The prime minister was shown various excavated fragments of the synagogue, along with Chief Rabbi of Lithuania Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, who presided over 25 Jewish- Lithuanian students who prayed at the site.

The synagogue and the excavations are “important not only for Lithuania, but for the global Jewish community,” Kubilius said. “It is a powerful symbol of both a great Jewish heritage and a great tragedy when the entire Jewish community was destroyed.”

The excavations have also uncovered part of the original floor, and the top of one of the four pillars surrounding the bima (central dais) of what was a central Jewish spiritual and cultural center in Lithuania for nearly four centuries.

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The Great Synagogue was originally built in 1633 on the site of an existing synagogue from 1572. Over time, a complex of other synagogues and communal facilities sprang up around it, including the famous Strashun Rabbinical Library, containing 25,000 books and manuscripts, and the prayer-house of the famed Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Solomon Zalman Kramer, 1720-1797. The whole complex became a hub of Torah study and the heart of the Mitnaged movement in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

“This is a very emotional discovery for us here and allows us to make a bridge to our authentic past,” said Emmanuel Zingeris, a Jewish member of the Lithuanian parliament and president of the project to restore the Jewish quarter of the old town of Vilnius. “We now have the precise spot where the holiest part of the synagogue stood, and it is under open sky.”

The dig is being conducted by Lithuanian archeologist Zenonas Baubonis and began earlier this summer.

Built in the Renaissance- Baroque style, the main prayer hall of the synagogue held 300 people with a three-tiered platform in the center and a two-tiered ark on the eastern wall.

The synagogue was constructed on a deep foundation, with its floor below street level, to allow for an interior height of five stories.

Rabbi Krinsky, who led the students in prayer, said: “Holiness transcends time. To pray on this place today 60-70 years after this great synagogue was destroyed by the Soviets, is a triumph for every Jew.”

The excavations are part of a government-sponsored initiative that began this year to restore the old Jewish quarter of Vilnius, and includes digs to uncover some of the eight smaller synagogues in the area.

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