(photo credit: Lynn O’Rourke Hayes)
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.
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The synagogue was partly
destroyed by the Germans during World War II and the remains demolished by
Soviet authorities between 1955 and 1957.
“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.”
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
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
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
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.