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.