An international group of experts has issued recommended guidelines for commemorating the site of the destroyed Great Synagogue in Vilnius. They advise against attempts to rebuild the synagogue but rather to concentrate on conserving and exposing the foundations and other elements of the structure that still exist. The group recognized the Lithuanian Jewish community as the “historical legal heir and owner of the site.”
Rebuilding the synagogue, they said, “would convey a false message.”
However, the kindergarten that was built on the spot during the Communist era should be removed, they said. Use of the site should be “non-commercial,” but the site should form the hub of a broader Jewish heritage route through the city.
The experts met in Vilnius in October at the invitation of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. They included:
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, advisor to the director and senior curator of main exhibits at the POLIN Polish Jewish History Museum; Assumpció Hosta, general secretary of the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (AEPJ); Sergey Kanovich, founder of the Maceva NGO and project manager of the Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund; Lyudmila Sholokhova, PhD, director, YIVO archive and library; Sergey Kravtsov, Senior Research Associate, Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University; the Lithuanian Jewish Community was represented by LJC heritage conservation specialist Martynas Užpelkis and architect and designer Victoria Sideraitė-Alon.
The guidelines were put forward in a statement issued Dec. 18. (Scroll down to read the full statement.)
“The best way to preserve the Great Synagogue of Vilna is to conserve the remnants and to communicate its history to future generations through a compelling experience of the intangible values of the site,” said Sergey Kanovich.
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.
There have been ongoing discussions for years on what to do with the site and how to commemorate the building.
Archaeological excavations in the past several years have revealed the foundations of the Bimah and also two ritual baths.
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.
Here is the guidelines statement issued by the Group of Experts:
RECOMMENDED GUIDELINES FOR THE COMMEMORATION OF THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE OF VILNA:
• The damage done to the site and to the Jewish community during and after WWII is not repairable and so rebuilding the Great Synagogue and/or any other significant part of the site would convey a false message. The recommended approach emphasizes the uniqueness of the site, its history and the current moment.
• The project should focus on conservation and on exposing existing remnants rather than building lofty constructions. The existing kindergarten/school building is not in keeping with the site and should be removed.
• The project should focus on recovering and expressing the prominence and unique meaning of the site in Lithuanian Jewish history and memory.
• The site should communicate its meaning first and foremost through a tangible experience of what has been found and conserved.
• The site should also offer visitors a compelling experience of the site’s intangible value through text and multimedia presentations.
• The site should become the focal point for visiting Jewish Vilna, with links to other sites in the city. Through multilingual signposting, printed and digital maps, a way-finding app and a consistent visual language, Jewish sites all over the city could be brought together to form a Jewish heritage route or precinct.
• The site should be designed and built to serve both the local community and tourists.
• The site should be accessible 24 hours per day.
• Use of the site should be non-commercial, consistent with its legal status as a national memorial park.
• The Lithuanian Jewish Community is the historical and legal heir and owner of the site, and therefore concept development, decision-making, physical design and reconstruction must be carried out in full coordination with and with the full approval of the Lithuanian Jewish Community.