The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Recovering Vilna’s Communal Jewish Heart: The Excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna (Vilnius)

Over the past six years excavations have been conducted at the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Vilnius, Lithuania. Though only a small fraction of the historic synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings of Lithuania survived the Holocaust, they are an essential and integral part of the cultural heritage of Lithuania. None was more consequential or important than the magnificent Great Synagogue of Vilna, the oldest and most significant monument of Litvak Jewry. This baroque synagogue, built on remains of an earlier wooden synagogue, was constructed in the 17th century and became the heart of one of Europe’s most important Jewish communities. Standing at the centre of a communal courtyard (Shulhoyf), together with eleven smaller synagogues, a bathhouse, kosher butcheries, a library and community offices, the Great Synagogue would go through a series of changes until its tragic ransacking and demolition under the Nazi and Soviet regimes. The lecture will concentrate on the finds of the excavation, with emphasis on the bathhouse, the miqva’ot (ritual baths), the synagogue building and the dedicatory inscription discovered from the Bimah. Furthermore, the value of excavation of now destroyed buildings, for which good documentation exists, will be assessed. Finally, the significance of the edifice will be offered together with options for commemoration of the site.