Jewish Heritage Europe

Lithuania: Underground remains of Vilnius Great Synagogue ID’d

Information placard in Vilnius at the site of the Great Synagogue.
Information placard in Vilnius at the site of the Great Synagogue.

The underground remains of the destroyed Great Synagogue and Shulhof in Vilnius have been identified thanks to a ground-penetrating radar survey carried out in June, and an archeological excavation of the site will begin next year.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority reports that the revelation came thanks to on-site work carried out by a joint team, led by the Authority’s Dr. Jon Seligman and Zenonas Baubonis of the the Culture Heritage Conservation Authority of Lithuania, together with Prof. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, Conn.

In a season of work, conducted in June 2015, the results of the ground penetrating radar survey showed significant remains of the synagogue below the surface, including sections of the Great Synagogue and possible remnants of the miqva’ot. Excavation is planned at the site in 2016 with the hope of exposing these remains for research and to display to them to the- general public as a fitting memorial to the important Jewish community of Vilna.
It is proposed that the future excavation will be conducted by a mixed team of archaeologists and student volunteers from Lithuania, Israel and the worldwide Jewish community, with the aim of ensuring 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.


The Great Synagogue was built in the 1600s in Renaissance-Baroque style. It became the center of Jewish life in Vilnius (Vilna), towering over the Shulhof, a teeming complex of alleyways and other Jewish community buildings and institutions including twelve synagogues, ritual baths, the community council, kosher meat stalls, the Strashun library, and other structures and institutions.

It was ransacked and torched by the Nazis in World War II, and the post-war Soviet regime torn down the ruins and built a school on the site.

“When you talk about the synagogue you have to talk about the whole complex,” Seligman told The Times of Israel. “We have a good understanding of the synagogue and a poor understanding of the complex.”

He said there was hope that some of the interior may be preserved, since — because of regulations restricting the height of the building when it was constructed — the main sanctuary floor was built well below street level.

People who wish to take part in the forthcoming excavation are asked to contact the Israel Antiquities Authority through its website.


Click to read the full Israeli Antiquities Authority report

Click to read the Times of Israel article



2 comments on “Lithuania: Underground remains of Vilnius Great Synagogue ID’d

  1. Of the 60,000 Jews of Vilna emerged after the retreat of the german Wehrmacht in the summer of 1944 several hundred again. They opened an elementary school, a museum and celebrated from 1944 to 1946 their services in the heavily damaged, some made-up and repairable Great Synagogue of Vilnius. Then it was demolished by order of the sovjet city administration, used the fallow as a parking lot and in 1964 as a building for a kindergarten. The foundations of the Great Synagogue had to be not “discovered”! In 1949, the Jewish elementary school and the museum were forcibly closed, the exhibits disappeared, “many Jewish books were brought as waste paper in the paper mills,” as Solomon Atamuk testified. The reason given was: “Jewish one does not need, which is no nationality, that’s nothing!” At the same time the city administration repaid all the names that were reminiscent of the Jewish past: the the great Jewish Holy dedicated Gaon Street, as the Straszuna Street, once the commercial axis of Vilna. 1952 allowed the authorities in nearby Ponary the monument with Yiddish inscription for there shot 70,000 Lithuanian Jews to tear down. Hundreds Lithuanians themselves were directly involved in the murders, countless had promoted the actions of the Germans helping passive or very active. Christoph Dieckmann, who published in 2011 the standard work to sums up: The Murder of the Jews, the German occupation regime in Lithuania “is not difficult, but easier.” (Götz Aly,10808020,31378510.html )

    • Thanks. As you see, we did not say that the remains were discovered, but identified. Certainly it was known that they were there, but the radar identified their exact position.

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