Radar Pinpoints Remains of Great Synagogue in Vilna

“ O God, hear my prayer; give ear to the words of my mouth.” (Psalms 54:4)

The remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, once the beating heart of a vibrant Lithuanian Jewish community, have been found using ground penetrating radar, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) reported.

Built in the 17th century, the synagogue was the oldest and most significant monument of Lithuanian Jewry before it was destroyed during the Holocaust. After being ransacked and burnt by the Nazis, the remains were further damaged by the Soviets, and a school was later built on the site. The modern school partially covers the remains today.

The radar survey was conducted in June of this year in Vilnius, Lithuania, and revealed both the synagogue and the Schulhof (synagogue yard) of Vilna’s former Jewish community. The synagogue, built in the Renaissance-Baroque style, was surrounded over time by other community buildings, such as the community council, the Strashun library, butcher shops, ritual baths and twelve other synagogues. These formed the center of the mitnagdim movement and served as the home of Rabbi Eliyahu, known as the Vilna Gaon, or genius.

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A joint team, led by Dr. Jon Seligman from the IAA, Zenonas Baubonis of the the Culture Heritage Conservation Authority of Lithuania, together with Prof. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, carried out the radar survey during the June season.

They found significant remains of the synagogue below the surface, including sections of the Great Synagogue and possible remnants of the ritual baths. Excavation of the site is planned for next year to create fitting memorial to the once thriving Lithuanian Jewish community.

Other experts involved in the discovery include Professor Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Professor Philip Reeder of Duquesne University and Dr. Vladimir Levin of the Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Prof. Harry Jol & Nicole Awad conducting a Ground Penetrating Radar survey at the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania. (Photo: Jon Seligman/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
Prof. Harry Jol & Nicole Awad conducting a Ground Penetrating Radar survey at the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania. (Photo: Jon Seligman/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to the IAA, it has been proposed that future excavation of the site be conducted by a mixed team of archaeologists and student volunteers from Lithuania, Israel and the worldwide Jewish community. The goal is to ensure “that Jewish-built cultural heritage is seen as an important and inseparable part of Lithuanian heritage that needs to be celebrated by all and preserved for perpetuity.”

To that end, the IAA also issued a call for volunteers from the public to participate in or sponsor the excavations. Interested parties are encouraged to contact the IAA via its website.

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