Photo Credit: Jon Seligman / Israel Antiquities Authority
Prof. Harry Jol & Nicole Awad conducting a Ground Penetrating Radar survey at the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania.

Israeli, Lithuanian and American researchers have tracked down the remains of the Great Synagogue and Shulhof of Vilna.

The remains, identified in a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey, will be uncovered in an archaeological excavation and displayed as part of a memorial for the magnificent Jewish community of Vilna.

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A Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey conducted in June 2015 in Vilnius, Lithuania has uncovered the underground remains of the Great Synagogue and Shulhof of Vilna, now lying partially below a modern school.

Prof. Harry Jol & Nicole Awad conducting a Ground Penetrating Radar survey at the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania.

These important remnants of what existed before the Holocaust, Lithuania’s greatest synagogue, will be exposed in an excavation to commence next year.

The magnificent Great Synagogue of Vilna (Vilnius) in Lithuania, was the oldest and most significant monument of Lithuanian Jewry.

Sadly, like most of the edifices of Jewish culture in Lithuania, the Great Synagogue was lost during the Holocaust.

A joint team led by Dr. Jon Seligman from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Zenonas Baubonis of the the Culture Heritage Conservation Authority of Lithuania, together with Prof. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, have just completed a successful season to identify the remains of the synagogue using ground penetrating radar.

The Ground Penetrating Radar scan shows an anomaly that is most probably the Mikveh (ritual pool) of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.

The joint team also included Professor Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Professor Philip Reeder of Duquesne University and Dr. Vladimir Levin of the Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Built in the 17th century in Renaissance-Baroque style, the Great Synagogue of Vilna was surrounded over time with other community buildings, including twelve synagogues, the community council, kosher meat stalls, the famous Strashun library, a complex of mikvehs (ritual pools) and other communal institutions that formed a great center of Torah study, the beating heart of the Lithuanian Jewish movement, the “Misnagdim” and the home for Rabbi Eliyahu, the famed Vilna Gaon.

After centuries of existence, with the destruction of the entire Jewish community of Vilna, this most important shrine of the Jews of Lithuania was ransacked and burnt by the Germans during World War II. The remains were later demolished by the Soviet authorities and a modern school was constructed on the site.

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 Syanagogue and possible remnants of the mikvehs.

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.

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.

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