Jewish Heritage Europe

Lithuania: Report (incl. video) of excavations at site of destroyed Vilna Great Synagogue

Archival photo of the Great Synagogue, Vilnius around 1934

The Israeli, Lithuanian and American archaeologists who carried out excavations last month on the site of the destroyed Vilnius Great Synagogue and the surrounding Shulhoyf have released a report on their discoveries — including unearthing two tiled ritual baths (mikvehs, or miqva’ot).

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 Shulhoyf, 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.

This summer’s work was the second season of archaeology at the site; the team carried out excavations July 10-21. The archaeologists said their discoveries  “add a new dimension to the understanding of the daily lives of the Jews of Vilna, and will certainly provide a new focus for understanding the lost cultural heritage of the Jewish community of Vilna, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania’.”

They detailed their finds in this video.




According to a statement released by the team:

The two Miqva’ot were discovered in July in the excavation led by Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, together with Mantas Daubaras of the Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Organization and Prof. Richard Freund of Hartford University. The two installations discovered are of the final phase of the Miqva’ot dated to the early 20th century. They have tiled walls and floors, steps leading to the pool and an otzar, an auxiliary pool in which water is collected for the miqve, in order to make it kosher for ritual purification.

The excavation has followed an architectural plan from the end of the 19th century that was discovered in the municipal archive of Vilna, a plan for the restoration of the ancient bathhouse by the community. According to this plan, the bathhouse consisted of two main floors, many rooms, and a large service wing. It was also possible to identify two installations that were built as ritual baths – the Miqva’ot. This plan guided the researchers during the archaeological dig.


How to commemorate the Great Synagogue and what to do with the site are questions that have been debated for years.

The organization Litvak World and the Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania are hosting an international conference in Vilnius, Lithuania on the topic September 4-5, 2017. Dr. Seligman will be among the speakers and will present the results of the excavations.

The conference is not the first to be held in Vilnius on this and related subjects.

Organizers say the aim of what they describe as a “creative workshop” is “to discuss the commemoration aspects of the Great Vilna synagogue site, meeting its significance and modern heritage protection standards.”

Click here to see the Conference program.

See our post from July about the archaeology in Vilnius

See the web site of the Shulhoyf/Great Synagogue archaeology project



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