Discovery in Lithuania: archeologists find ruins of Great Synagogue

Archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority have found mikves, bathhouses, and other fascinating finds.

Volunteers, students and archaeologists excavate two recently uncovered mikves once belonging to the Great Synagogue of Vilna. (photo credit: DR. JOHNATHAN SELIGMAN)
Volunteers, students and archaeologists excavate two recently uncovered mikves once belonging to the Great Synagogue of Vilna.
(photo credit: DR. JOHNATHAN SELIGMAN)
In 2015, a survey conducted using ground penetrating radar discovered ruins near a school in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The ruins were of the city’s Great Synagogue, and since their discovery they have provided substantial insights into the life the Jewish community before the Holocaust.
The team of archeologists, who embarked on the project because of a newly discovered blueprint of the destroyed Great Synagogue of Vilnius, unearthed the remains of two ritual baths that were used by congregants of one of Europe’s largest and most prominent Jewish communities before its annihilation more than 70 years ago.
In 2015, the Israel Antiquities Authority sent a survey team, in hopes of finding ruins underground.
Their radar picked up remains of the synagogue, and have since learned much about how the Jewish community lived and thrived in Vilnius before the Holocaust, by studying the architecture and the structure of the mikvaot, exposing aspects such as halachic traditions and methods of water transportation and sewage systems.
The hope is that a memorial site can be created in the community’s honor.
The team is also searching for answers in a nearby dig site in Ponary, a nearby suburb and the scene of the mass murder of up to 100,000 people by German SD, SS and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators between July 1941 and August 1944.
The synagogue, which was at the heart of the large Jewish community in Vilnius for hundreds of years, was destroyed in the Holocaust. But the baths, or mikvaot, and underground spaces discovered in a study carried out last year led to the excavation of the site by Israeli, Lithuanian and American archeologists and the exposure of the ritual baths, the Heritage Daily reported on Thursday.
The excavation has followed an architectural plan from the end of the 19th century for the restoration of the ancient bathhouse by the community that was discovered in the municipal archive of Vilnius.
According to the plan, the bathhouse consisted of two main floors, many rooms and a large service wing.
The document allowed the diggers to identify the two mikvaot last month.
The Great Synagogue of Vilnius, built in the 17th century in the Baroque-Renaissance style, was a large community center and a center of Torah study. It was at the heart of Lithuanian Jewry and included 12 synagogues and batei midrash, or study halls, ritual baths, the community council building and kosher meat stalls.
But the complex is best known for its serving as the base of operations for the Vilna Gaon, the 18th-century rabbinical luminary whose name was Elijah ben Solomon Zalman.
After hundreds of years of existence, with the destruction of nearly the entire Jewish community of Vilnius during the Holocaust, the most holy place of the Jews of Lithuania was looted and burned to the ground by the Germans, and the remains were destroyed by Soviet authorities, who built a modern school in its place in 1957.
Before the discovery, “We had found little information about the bathhouse and mikve building of the Jewish community, a community that comprised almost half of the city’s population,” said Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who led the research team.
The researchers wrote in a statement announcing the find, “These discoveries add a new dimension to the understanding of the daily lives of the Jews of Vilnius, and will certainly provide a new focus for understanding the lost cultural heritage of the Jewish community of Vilnius, the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania.’” Seligman continued, “Until this point, we have had fragments of information about the life of the Jewish community in Vilnius. The goal of this mission is to turn the legacy of the Jewish community of Vilnius into an inseparable part of the entire Jewish Lithuanian legacy and to preserve the site for future visitors.”