Great Synagogue of Vilna's Jewish Ritual Baths, Destroyed in Holocaust, Found by Archaeologists

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Tiled floor of a mikve in the Great Synagogue of Vilna
Tiled floor of a mikve in the Great Synagogue of VilnaCredit: Jon Seligman

An international team of archaeologists has unearthed the remains of ritual baths at the Great Synagogue in Vilna, which had been burned and ransacked by the Nazis during the Holocaust, and was finally pulled down once and for all by the Russians in 1965 as they set out to eradicate all memory of the Jews in Lithuania.

How long Jews lived in Lithuania is hard to know. The earliest records note their presence from the 8th century C.E., though they could have arrived centuries before, as Jews scattered through the diaspora after the disastrous Bar Kokhba Revolt in ancient Israel. In any case, like numerous other European nations, Lithuania had a checkered relationship with the Jews, sometimes embracing them with warmth, at other times expelling the whole population, for instance in the year 1495. They were allowed back in after eight years, but relations between the Lithuanian powers that be and the Jewish population had soured, and would remain strained (and worse).

The vast Great Synagogue of Vilna itself was completed in 1633, over a century after the Jews were let back into Lithuania. It was built on the site of an older synagogue, which in turn had been built on the remains of an even older Jewish prayer house.

First the Lithuanian authorities of this early modern period had to let the Jews build a house of worship from stone. Since it was so large and grand, yet was forbidden by law to pass the height of churches in the city, much of the Grand Synagogue was built below ground. Seen from the street, the synagogue seemed three stories tall but inside it stretched the equivalent of five stories, all grandly decorated, according to records.

On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany occupied Lithuania.

"During the liquidation of the Small Ghetto, [in October 1941], the Great Synagogue was burned and then ransacked," Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, leader of the research team, told Haaretz. It was 308 years after its construction.

Yet, as World War II ended, the shell of the synagogue still stood. Even though it was burnt out and its furnishings were gone, it could have been restored, he says.

It was not to be. "In the 1950s, the Lithuanian Soviet government decided to destroy the synagogue and the whole the area around it," Seligman mourns. The synagogue compound had included schools (no less than 12 batei midrash, one run by the Gaon of Vilna), a library, kosher meat stalls – and the mikves.

A model of the Great Synagogue of VilnaCredit: Sodabottle, Wikimedia

Grasshoppers and amphibia

The excavation was based on a late 19th-century architectural plan found in the municipal archive of Vilna, for the community to restore the ancient bathhouse. That plan had the bathhouse with two main stories, a number of rooms, and a service wing. But the archaeologists found just two mikvas and do not know if there were more.

"Only two are marked on the plan," Seligman says. A sign that there may have been more is that they two are much smaller than the archaeologists had expected, he adds.

We don't know what the mikvas' building looked like. We do have a description of the mikve experience at the Great Synagogue, from a Yiddish tour guide. As delivered by Seligman: "The walls were covered with black mold and there were grasshoppers running around. Frogs croaking in the corner. It does not sound like it was a very nice place to visit."

The Jews of Vilna were wiped out during the Holocaust. Of the original 130 synagogues in Vilna, only one remained standing after World War II and the subsequent Russian policy (at the time) to wipe out the memory of the Jewish people, Seligman says: "They destroyed all standing Jewish monuments. They also destroyed the cemeteries, using the tombstones as building materials."

This Soviet destruction was not unique to Vilna: it was a common feature in that area – any synagogues that had survived the war were demolished, or repurposed, for instance as storerooms, Seligman says.

On the site that had housed the Great Synagogue, the Lithuanians have built a school that stands there to this very day. And the Jews of Lithuania continue to worship at the one synagogue left standing. No others have been built.

The excavation of the mikvas was led by Seligman, with Mantas Daubaras of the Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Organization and Prof. Richard Freund of Hartford University.

Sorting discoveries from excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna compound and mikves.Credit: Jon Seligman

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