Jewish Heritage Europe

Lithuania: Archaeologists unearth Bimah of Vilnius Great Synagogue

Jon Seligman points out the remains of the Bimah of the Great Synagogue of Vilna to Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius. (Photo used with permission)

An international team of archaeologists from the USA, Canada, Lithuania and Israel have revealed the foundations of the Bimah that once anchored the destroyed Great Synagogue in Vilnius, locating it directly under the school building that was constructed atop the site in the 1950s.

Archival photo of the Great Synagogue, Vilnius around 1934

“The remains of the Bimah exist to the height of a metre and show the great potential for future excavation,” the Vilna Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf Research Project announced.

“It is really a very exciting development,” Israeli archeologist Jon Seligman, who leads the archaeology team along with Lithuanian archaeologist Justinas Račas, told AFP. “When we talk about the presentation of the site to the public in the future, this will be one of the central features of the display that will be shown to the public.”

Following the discovery, according to AFP,  Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius announced that the school, vacated last year, will be demolished in the coming years and a commemorative site about the synagogue will be developed and inaugurated by 2023, when Vilnius marks its 700th anniversary.

The Great Synagogue was built in the early 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 postwar Soviet regime torn down the ruins and built the school on the site.

The Bimah was built in the 18th century following a destructive fire in 1748. Its construction was financed by a local benefactor, a writer and judge named Yehudah ben Eliezer, who was known by the acronym YESOD. The archaeologists describe the Bimah as having been “a two tier baroque structure built of four Corinthian and eight Tuscan columns, decorated with lions facing the Aron Kodesh.”

Archival view (l) of the Bimah in the Great Synagogue in Vilnius (photo used with permission)

The archaeology project began in 2011 with a preliminary excavation, followed by a Ground Penetrating Radar Survey in 2015 and full excavation seasons in 2016 and 2017. The project is partnered and sponsored by a variety of Lithuanian, Israeli, and American institutions.

Last year, major finds were the discovery of two ritual baths (mikvehs).

The 2018 season commenced July 9 and ended July 27. Its main goals were  to further explore the bathhouse and the associated features and also to identify the outer walls of the synagogue.

Plan showing the 2018 excavation priorities of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius (photo used with permission)


See the Baltic News Service article

11 comments on “Lithuania: Archaeologists unearth Bimah of Vilnius Great Synagogue

  1. Please read Pope Francis (New York Times – 9/24/18) as he warns Lithuanians regarding historical revisionism and anti Semitic actions. Hopefully all Eastern European nations will heed his warnings.

  2. Please read the New York Times (today September 11, 2018) front page article on Lithuania and the movement to the right(fascism is the traditional political philosophy). While parts of this piece appeared in the FORWARD it now has much wider distribution. From my perspective, it was a major mistake to include Lithuania, Poland and Hungary in NATO and the European Union.

    • As far as I know every Jew is fascist – having in mind the only country in the world – Israel.
      The same is with other nation’s patriots. The U.S and Canada are immigrant’s countries, so it is much different situation. Probably most of American Jews would like to develop some kind of Jewish Europe, but it is rather impossible.

  3. My grandparents started a new life in South Africa. They came from Shavli. How I wish I had spoken more with my beloved Bobba, Bessie Silber Meyerson (Myers) – Isaac my grandfather had passed away before I was born. I cannot begin to imagine the pogroms, the anti-Semitism and abuse. I have lived in Canada most of my life. I was young when I left South Africa … she was always so dignified.

  4. No question that this is exciting news. And it occurs at the same time that many eastern European nations are endeavoring to rewrite their history. As Poland, Hungary and Lithuanian turn to the right and fascism (their first love) many politicians and historians are arguing that victims of Soviet rule should be placed on the same level of annihilation as the Jews. And they are evaluating many fascist who supported the Nazi movement as true heroes for their opposition to Soviet rule. The goal here is clear – government officials in Poland, Hungary and Lithuania are trying to obfuscate the role of their military, police, public officials and citizens in the destruction of their Jewish communities.

    In short, while we should take pride in the work undertaken by the archaeologists in Vilna, we must recognize that these government are turning to their historical roots of fascism.

  5. Pingback: Lithuania's 'Great Synagogue' fell to the Nazis, but archaeologists have uncovered it - Manhattan Herald
  6. When they show this Bimah, they will have to apologize for the complicity in the murder of 100,000 jews during the Nazi era.
    I visited Vinius a few years ago ,as I was invited to participate to a conference in Atomic Physics. All the local colleagues were quick to point out the statue of the Gaon of Vilna ( there is a street in his name), but the only monument to the memory of the victims is a small sign in the old jewish neighborhood , now “gentrified” , saying from here were taken xxx jews to a place ( I don’t remember)…

    • You are right for the “complicity”. As the next step the “complicity” persons must be named.
      Glad to see that Lithuania rebuilds what was totally destroyed by soviets. Also Russia should apologize for ~300,000 Lithuania citizens (Lithuanians, Jews, Poles, Karaites…) which was killed, expelled or imprisoned.
      Btw many monuments were destroyed by soviets and even Jewish and Lithuanians tombstones was used for soviets as a building materials. Glad to see that Lithuania finally cleans that occupation mess and I hope that international (not just local) Jewish community will proactively join these local initiatives. Furthermore it would be great to see more cooperation with international Jewish community and see more Judaic Lithaunia citizens.

  7. When I think…..when I assume that my grandmother, and great grandmother’s family the “Abelove”s
    prayed in this magnificent synagogue in Vilna, I am overcome by the emotion!

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