Lithuania’s Great Synagogue, demolished by Russians, draws archeological attention
The Great Synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania was demolished by Russian troops just 55 years ago, but a local researcher from Duquesne University is already working on preserving its legacy.
Despite the synagogue’s relatively recent destruction, it is nonetheless the subject of an archeological project headed by a worldwide team of experts, including Philip Reeder, dean and professor of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Duquesne.
Archaeological work undertaken to preserve or reconstruct history does not necessarily have to focus on ancient structures dating back thousands or even hundreds of years, according to Reeder. Rather, he said, archaeology is about “uncovering any history that is potentially lost, even if it 55 years old.”
Reeder was in Vilnius earlier this summer, participating in the multidisciplinary team’s collection of data about Vilnius’ Great Synagogue, which was one of the largest synagogues in Eastern Europe.
Now mostly Catholic, Vilnius was once called “The Jerusalem of Lithuania” and was home to about 60,000 Jews, constituting about 30 percent of the city’s total population. The Nazis invaded Vilnius on June 24, 1941, and transported its Jews to the nearby forest of Ponary, where they were all murdered by firing squad.
Along with Reeder, the research team at the Great Synagogue includes Richard Freund of the University of Hartford; Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Lithuanian Cultural Preservation archaeologist Zenonas Baubonis; and on-site director of the project, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Jon Seligman.
Seligman assembled the team after he learned about initial excavations by Lithuanian archaeologists in 2011, which uncovered parts of the synagogue, including various walls and steps. Seligman has a personal connection to Vilnius, he said, speaking by phone from Israel, as some of his family resided there before World War II.
The team is creating plans of sub-surface locations of the remains of the Great Synagogue, which first was damaged by the Nazis in the 1940s, and then demolished by the Soviets in 1957. While housing and a school now sit on the site, some of the synagogue’s original structure remains below the surface, Reeder said.
Reeder has been at work drawing maps of the structure based on information he has obtained through Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), a process originally used in the oil and gas industry, that allows one to look beneath the surface of a structure without digging.
The team’s research will be combined with that of the Lithuanian archaeologists’ 2011 work and the work of archivists who have studied documentation about the synagogue, including plans of the building dating from the late 19th century. Those plans show a complex with 12 separate structures and indicate a 30- by 120-foot bathhouse area, possibly including a mikvah.
“My role is to take the existing information from maps and diagrams, the other archives and our work and pull it together into one map,” Reeder said.
He stressed the imperative of working now to uncover the history of the synagogue.
“Something like this can quickly sink into the oblivion of history and be forgotten,” he said. “It’s recent history, but it still needs to be documented.”
Following their work in Vilnius, Reeder and Jol traveled to Vienna and Brussels to visit similar synagogues dating from the same period as the Great Synagogue.
“To see intact versions of similar structures is very important in terms of visualizing what is buried in Vilnius,” Reeder said.
After as much information as possible can be obtained about the Great Synagogue, Reeder said the goal is to have local authorities, including its current small Jewish community, erect either a memorial or a museum.
It is unlikely the Great Synagogue will be rebuilt for use as a synagogue, at least on the same magnitude, according to Seligman.
“Later on, we’ll see what the possibilities are,” said Seligman, who observed that because the Jewish population of Vilnius is now so small — only about 300 people — rebuilding the large structure for use by a congregation would be impractical.
It could, however, be rebuilt as a cultural institution, Seligman said.
The team is anxious to move the project forward, Seligman said, and is looking for sponsors the help finance an excursion next summer so it can continue its work there. If able to return, the team plans to help locate unidentified mass graves believed to hold the remains of 70,000 Jews and other Lithuanians murdered by Nazis in the nearby Ponary forest.
Reeder, who has been working on various archaeological projects in Israel with this team since 1999, is headed back to Nazareth this week to work at the grounds of the Church of the Annuncia-
tion, possibly one of the earliest churches in the history of Christianity. In June, the team discovered a mosaic floor there but halted its work because of Ramadan. They plan to complete and document the excavation on this trip.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.