European Jewish Congress
Archaeologists uncover the heart of Nazi-razed Jewish cemetery
Lithuania
Archaeologists uncover the heart of Nazi-razed Jewish cemetery

A team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archaeologists have uncovered the heart of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, which was razed by the Nazis 70 years ago. The discovery of the ritual baths, considered a vital part of an active Jewish community, is the most exciting find in this second year of excavations at the site.

The Great Synagogue is actually a large compound that was considered the beating heart of Lithuanian Jewry for some 300 years. It contained the renowned Strashun Library, 12 synagogues, Jewish schools, ritual baths, the local Jewish community council building, and kosher food places. When Nazi soldiers occupied the city in June 1941, these Jewish buildings were burned to the ground.

Vilnius, a community of some 70,000 when the Second World War broke out, supported over 100 synagogues and half a dozen Jewish dailies and was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Under Nazi occupation, 95 percent of Lithuanian Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust and Soviet rule drove out many who survived. In the 1950s, the synagogue compound was turned into a basketball court and kindergarten.

After the Nazis destroyed the compound, three pieces from the Great Synagogue of Vilna survived: a bas-relief with the Ten Commandments, a door from an Ark where Torah scrolls were kept, and a table upon which the scroll was read. All other traces of the compound virtually disappeared.

In 2015, a team of archaeologists led by Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dr. Jon Seligman and Prof. Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey and found promising indications of where the underground ruins of the buildings still stood.

In 2016, the excavations uncovered the underground rooms and this summer, the bathhouse and ritual baths continued to be excavated.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017
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