Lithuania archaeologists unearth Great Synagogue of Vilnius's old mikve

It was destroyed during by the Nazis and levelled during the Soviet period


An international team of archaeologists has unearthed one of the most revered parts of the destroyed Great Synagogue of Vilnius — the bimah.

The raised platform was described by the archaeologists as “a two-tier Baroque structure built of four Corinthian and eight Tuscan columns, decorated with lions facing the Aron Kodesh”.

The large Baroque synagogue, dating back to the 1630s, was once famous across Europe. It sat among a maze of teeming alleyways and Jewish community buildings, including ritual baths, the Strashun library, kosher meat stalls and smaller synagogues.

The building was damaged in a fire in the 18th century and a new, ornate bimah was financed by local writer and judge Yehuda ben Eliezer.

The Great Synagogue was raided and torched by the Nazis and the post-war Soviet regime that followed levelled the ruins and built a school over it, leaving little to remind people that this was once a very special place for Lithuania’s thriving Jewish community.

“We’ve found the bimah, the central prayer platform, which was in Tuscan Baroque style. It was one of the central features of the synagogue,” Israeli archaeologist Jon Seligman, who led the team, told AFP.

“It is really a very exciting development. When we talk about the presentation of the site to the public in the future, this will be one of the central features of the display.”

The team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archaeologists had also uncovered parts of the mikve, or ritual bath, on the northern side of the site.

This work is mostly paid for by the Good Will Foundation, Lithuania’s fund for Jewish communal property seized by Nazi Germany and then kept by the Soviet regime.

Vilnius authorities closed the Soviet-era school last year and plan to replace it with a memorial displaying synagogue artefacts within the next five years.

“The school will be demolished within two years and we’ll create a respectful site, displaying rich Jewish heritage by 2023, when Vilnius celebrates its 700th birthday,” the city’s mayor Remigijus Simasius said.

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