Archaeologists Find Torah Platform in Old Vilna Synagogue Destroyed by Nazis

The bimah was burned along with the building during the Holocaust. The ruins stood until the 1950s, when the Soviet government tore it down and built a school in its place

Archaeological digs in the school, Vilna, Lithuania
Jon Seligman/Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists have uncovered a key portion of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which was destroyed during the Holocaust.

The bimah, a podium where the Torah was read, was found underneath a school in the Lithuanian capital, now called Vilnius.

The synagogue was built in the 17th century in the baroque style and served about half of the city’s huge Jewish community for some 300 years. After the Nazis occupied Vilna, the synagogue was included in one of the city’s two ghettos. When the Nazis liquidated the ghetto, they also burned the synagogue.

The ruins stood until the 1950s, when the Soviet government tore it down and built a school in its place.

For the last three years, archaeologists have been excavating near the school to uncover the synagogue’s remnants. The dig was sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Lithuania’s Cultural Heritage Conservation Authority, the Claims Conference’s Goodwill Fund and the Lithuanian Jewish community.

Remains of the bimah, Vilna, Lithuania
Jon Seligman/Israel Antiquities Authority

The dig had previously uncovered the synagogue’s ritual baths and parts of its walls. But last year, the Vilnius municipality decided to close the school, enabling the archaeologists to obtain a permit to excavate inside it.

Under the school’s floor, they found the synagogue’s ornate bimah, which was built in the 18th century and is well-known through photographs dating from the synagogue’s glory days. The bimah, which stood in the center of the synagogue, is a two-story structure supported by 12 marble columns. The dig also uncovered fragments of the columns and other relics.

“The dig raises archaeological questions about the structure, but it also has a public goal,” said Dr. Jon Seligman, the archaeologist running the excavations. “The Jews of this city once constituted half its population, but their presence in the city has been largely forgotten. Our idea is to restore this building in some fashion to the city and to memorialize the synagogue.”

Israeli archaeologists have been involved in many excavations of Holocaust-era structures in Europe in recent years. One of the most important of these digs discovered many relics of the Sobibor extermination camp.