Photo Credit: Jon Seligman, Israel Antiquities Authority
The excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna – the area of the Aron Kodesh and the two flights of stairs destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviets.

An excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, Lithuania, has fully exposed the Aron Kodesh (Torah Ark) and Bimah that were destroyed 60 years ago by the Nazis and later the Soviets, the Israeli-Lithuanian excavation expedition announced Thursday.

The six-year excavation project, directed by the archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Dr. Jon Seligman, to uncover the remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilna and parts of the Shulhoyf – the center of Jewish life in Vilna, began with a ground-penetrating radar test at the site and later developed into the excavation that yielded significant discoveries.

The silver Yad found Thursday morning, Aug. 26, 2021. / Jon Seligman, Israel Antiquities Authority
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“Just this morning, while sifting the soil in front of the Aron Kodesh, we found a silver Yad, a pointer used to read from the Torah scroll,” the archaeologists reported Thursday.

The Great Synagogue of Vilna, built in the 17th century in Renaissance-Baroque style, was the major part of the Shulhoyf – a large Jewish center of Torah and Talmudic study. At the heart of the Lithuanian Jewish community were 12 synagogues and prayer halls, a bathhouse and mikvahs (ritual baths), the community council building, kosher meat stalls, a famous library named after Talmudist and Midrashic scholar Mattityahu Strashun, and the Vilna Gaon’s seminary. Centuries of fertile and holy existence came to an end with the destruction of the Jewish community of Vilna during the Holocaust. The Great Synagogue was looted and burned by the Nazis, and in 1956-7, whatever had been left standing was destroyed by the Soviets.

Jon Seligman, Israel Antiquities Authority / Jon Seligman, Israel Antiquities Authority

A few years ago, Dr. Jon Seligman’s visit to Vilna as part of a roots trip sparked the idea of digging up what was left of the compound and the synagogue.

According to Dr. Seligman, and Justinas Rakas, of the Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos, whose excavation included a combined team of Lithuanians, Israelis, and North Americans, “When we arrived to excavate the Aron Kodesh and the Bimah, where generations of Jews had read the Torah scrolls for 300 consecutive years, it became clear, unfortunately, that the core of the synagogue had been greatly damaged by the Soviets. Still, two impressive staircases, clearly visible in the many images of the synagogue before its destruction were discovered, and are evidence of their existence. In addition, the excavation of the Bimah was completed including the entire façade of the Bimah and the complete remains of one of the four huge pillars that supported the roof of the Great Synagogue.”

The Aron Kodesh, whose remains were unearthed during the sixth excavation season that has now ended, and which appears in all its glory in the many pictures of the synagogue, was renovated after a fire in the 18th century with the contribution of the YeSOD, Yehuda ben Eliezer, a Talmudist and philanthropist (d. 1762). The foundation also donated the ornate Bimah, which was a two-story structure with four Corinthian columns and eight Tuscan columns.

Computer imaging of the 18th-century Bimah at the Great Synagogue of Vilna. / UAB Inlusion Netforms

The excavation of the Great Synagogue in Lithuania is a joint venture of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Kultūros paveldo Išsaugojimo pajėgos, the Good Will Foundation, and the Jewish Community of Lithuania.

According to Eli Eskozido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The recent discovery of magnificent parts of the Great Synagogue shows the potential for further excavation of the site, in anticipation of the exciting possibility of displaying the remains in the future.

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