Here, he’s Great Synagogue after it was destroyed by a fire during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania during the second world War. Credit: Vilna Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf Research Project
s of a Nazi destroyed Jewish synagogue in Lithuania see the light of day again after archaeologists unearthed the religious center is buried bimah, or central prayer platform, in a recent excavation.
The finding is the result of a three-year project to dig on the former site of what was known as the ‘Great Synagogue of Vilna”, a title that comes from an old name for the city of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.
While the Nazis destroyed many Jewish synagogues during the second world War, the Great Synagogue of Vilna was a huge loss, it had served as the spiritual center of the Jewish community in Vilnius for hundreds of years, from the 1600s to 1940, said Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is leading an international team of archaeologists to the execution of the excavations. [Photos: Unusual Mosaics Decorated Old Synagogue in Israel]
The synagogue was burned down during the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944, when most of the tens of thousands of Jews who lived in Vilnius were murdered, Seligman told Live Science.
After the second world War, when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, the ruined synagogue was levelled, and then built, first with a kindergarten and later a school. Over the past few years, archaeologists have surveyed the site with ground-penetrating radar, in the hope to discover and study the remains of the famous synagogue, Live Science reported earlier.
That project was a success: During the recent excavations, archaeologists located the bimah of the Great Synagogue, together with a number of the tiles of the floor around the platform, in a part of the structure buried under the former head of the school in the office of the Seligman said.
The bimah (pronounce: bee-mah) was a raised platform in the geometric center of the square-shaped holy building, where passages from the Torah, the Jewish holy book, were read aloud. Congregants would have marveled at this structure during the services; the bimah was, with green and brown bricks, in a “Tuscan Baroque style that was popular when the Great Synagogue was built in the 1630s, Seligman said.
“Jerusalem of the North”
Jewish people started to move in Vilnius in the 14th century, when the King of Lithuania first gave them permission to live there, Seligman said. The site, which archaeologists are now excavating is used as a synagogue from the town of the Jewish community since the 1440s.
At first, all the buildings in the city were made of wood, including the synagogue. But in the 1600’s, architects were brought to Vilnius from Italy and Germany to rebuild the city in brick. The famous Large Synagogue was built in the time, Seligman said.
During the 17th century, Vilnius attracted many Yiddish-speaking writers and scholars, giving the city the nickname the “Jerusalem of the North,” Seligman said.
The Great Synagogue towered above the streets and alleys of the “Shulhoyf,” the name given to the Jewish quarter in Vilnius. The synagogue was hit by a devastating fire in 1748, but it was rebuilt by well-wishers, according to the Jewish Heritage of Europe, which tracks news about the Jewish monuments and heritage sites in Europe.
Lithuania and the beginning of the Christian authorities may have unknowingly helped to protect the lower parts of the synagogue from total destruction in the 20th century.
“The authorities demanded the synagogue be higher than the churches in the city,” Seligman said. And so is the floor of the Great Synagogue was built below ground level, allowing the architects to maximize the internal height of the stately main room without breaking the external height restriction. [Images: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre]
That helped, in turn, for the protection of the lowest levels of the synagogue when the Nazis burned down in 1941, and the Soviet authorities built on the site in the middle of the 1950s, Seligman said, the floor and the bimah of the buried synagogue were approximately 9 feet (3 meters) below the current ground level, the archaeologists reported.
Until the second world War, about half of Lithuania’s 240,000 Jews lived in the capital, Vilnius, but Nazis and their sympathizers killed most of the Jewish population during the occupation of Lithuania by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944.
Although the Nazis used a system of concentration camps for the imprisonment and murder of the Jews in Western Europe, in Vilnius and other Eastern European cities, Jews were forced to live in closed-off “ghetto” neighborhoods.
Death-team of German and Lithuanian paramilitary troops often raided the ghetto of Vilnius, and at the end of 1944, up to 70,000 Jews were shot to death next to mass graves in the Paneriai (or, Ponary) Forest, a few kilometres from Vilnius, according to Yad Vashem, the World of the Commemoration of the Holocaust Center.
Tens of thousands died in the ghettos themselves and in Nazi camps in Eastern Europe.
Seligman said that the last three years of excavations at the Great Synagogue site in Vilnius, by a team from the Lithuanian, Israeli, and AMERICAN archaeologists, was paid for mainly by Lithuania’s Good Will to the Fund, which is funded by the compensation from the Lithuanian government for Jewish property seized by the Nazis and then kept by the Soviet regime.
The news agency AFP reported that the bimah and other artifacts from the Great Synagogue will be part of a Jewish memorial center on the grounds of the former school, which closed last year. “The school will be destroyed within two years, and we create a respectful site display the rich Jewish heritage by 2023, when Vilnius will celebrate its 700th birthday,” the mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Simasius, told AFP.
Seligman said that also in other parts of the Great Synagogue found in the recent excavations in two ritual baths, or mikvahs. And there is more to come: the Archaeologists hope to find the outer walls of the synagogue and the excavation of the ground, ” he said.
Original article on Live Science.