Pillars and Mikveh Discovered at Lithuanian Synagogue Destroyed During Holocaust

For the past few years the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, once the 'beating heart' of the city's Jewish community, has been under excavation after a school was built in its place

The excavation site at Vilnius.
Vilnius City Municipality

Two pillars of the bimah of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, along with a mikveh, inscriptions and historic floor tiles were recently discovered in archaeological excavations of the compound in Lithuania.

“The discovery of the pillars is a great moment for us because we have found one of the two most sacred parts of the building. These pillars used to be nine meters tall, and were located at a special place in the synagogue – exactly where rabbis were standing during the service,” Dr. Jon Seligman, the head of the research team at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), said in a statement released by the Vilnius municipality.

“The pillars were recognized by using the photos of the synagogue. Although we were hoping to find them, we experienced great joy when finally stumbling upon them,” he added.

The excavation site at Vilnius.
Vilnius City Municipality

The synagogue, which was built in the 17th century, was the “beating heart of the Vilnius community for hundreds of years,” as the IAA has described it in the past. It was built in the Renaissance-Baroque style and was part of a large Jewish compound that included the community council building, 12 synagogues and study halls, ritual baths, kosher meat stalls, the study hall of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon, and other elements.

The synagogue was destroyed in the Holocaust, and its ruins were demolished by Soviet authorities after World War II. A kindergarten and primary school were built in its place.

Evidence of underground structures found at the site led to the excavations, which began in 2011. The excavation sought to trace the architectural plan from the late 19th century, which was found in the Vilnius municipal archive. Next to the two pillars, inscriptions were found on the synagogue wall, including quotes from Genesis and religious songs. A basement was also found containing 300 coins dating from the 17th century and onward.

The excavation site at Vilnius.
Vilnius City Municipality

The current discovery joins those reported a year ago, when the bimah was uncovered, along with parts of the ritual bath and the synagogue wall. The team operating at the site includes archaeologists from Israel, the United States and Lithuania. The IAA is a partner in the project, along with the Lithuanian Jewish community and the Vilnius municipality. In the coming year the team hopes to uncover the Holy Ark and the Vilnius municipality is planning on restoring the entire site.