Lithuania: Test Excavations (2011) and Ground Radar Survey (2015) of Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf Point to More Archaeology in 2016
by Samuel D. Gruber
The heart of Jewish Vilna (Vilnius) was the Shulhoyf, the crowded open space outside the Great Synagogue. That building, which was possibly first built in 1573, was rebuilt after February 25, 1633, when Wladyslaw IV Vasa (r. 1632-48) granted this privilege to the Jews: "for the purpose of security and better protection from fire, permission is given to build a synagogue in our city of Vilnius on Jewish Street, which is densely lined up with buildings [...], on the same plot where it stands now." [translation in Synagogues of Lithuania N-Z, p. 240. The synagogue was changed several times, with a major renovation by engineer Leonid Viner from 1893-1898.
The Great Synagogue survived World War II in a very ruined condition and was eventually demolished in the 1950s in order to make space for needed housing as the city rebuilt. Those few Jews left in Vilna had more immediate survival concerns, and no one was willing or able to make the case that the building be saved. Like many Jewish monuments in the post-World War II Soviet period, the ruin was superfluous and it was demolished.
In 2011 archaeological excavations, led by Zenonas Baubonis and Mindaugas Maciulis of the Kulturos paveldo išsaugojimo pajegos (‘Cultural heritage preservation forces’) took place next to the school built on the synagogue site and confirmed location of some of the buildings features. The excavation was initiated by the Cultural Heritage Department of the Ministry of Culture, in order to identify remains of the Great Synagogue to assess "the nature, scope, methodology and research goals for the future." Excavation was coordinated with careful collating of all cartographic information about the site and this information has been linked into the cartographic database of the Lithuanian State Coordinate System. consulted plans included the Vilnius Old Town of 1939 (1:1000); the Vilnius Great Synagogue building plan of 1939 (1:50) surveyed by Berlin and Segal; the pre-war Vilnius city plan (1: 250); and the plans of the Great Synagogue reconstruction project of 1893. With these indicators, despite the change in the street plan, the location of the synagogue can be determined, allowing three successful small excavations.
In the 1930s, Israel Cohen visited and wrote of the Shulhoyf in his essential history and guide to Vilna (but not published until 1943):
"The heart of the Jewish quarter, from the time when the community first began to assume organic form in the fifteenth century until the present day, was the Schulhof or synagogue courtyard. It derives its name from the Great Synagogue, which was the most important of the many buildings and institutions that clustered thickly around this quaint cloistral enclosure. it was shaped like the letter L, reversed, and could be approached from the Zydowska through a huge iron gate, flanked by lamps on two stone pillars, or through a short alley from the Niemiecka. it was entirely surrounded by houses of prayer and study of varied size and different degrees of antiquity, and embodied within its limited ambit more of the memories and legends, and of the aspirations and sufferings of Vilna Jewry over a period of five hundred years than any equivalent piece of earth in any other Jewish community in Europe. During the greater part of this period the Schulhof was the focus of ll the manifold activities of the community -- religious, administrative, judicial,intellectual and social -- and even in recent times it continued to dominate its religious and cultural life."
"Here were formerly situated those institutions so vital to conformity with ritual tradition -- the slaughter-house and the baths, which have long ago been removed to more suitable locations. Here were the offices of the Kahal, from where all the affairs of the community were administered, and also the courthouse of the Bet Din, where the judges deliberated upon the many vexing questions submitted to their wisdom and authority. Here too, as is recorded on a wall, was situated the well from which the Jews of the whole adjacent area used to obtain their water. For, although the municipality was obliged to provide them with water as one of the services for which they paid an annual tax, the Jews were nevertheless obliged to procure their own supply from the neighboring Vingari wells by special agreement, made in 1759, with the Dominican monks, whom they paid 200 gulden a year. These monks, who had acquired the wells from Lithuanian magnates, allowed the Jews to convey the water by means of wooden pipes to the synagogue courtyard, but to no other place. Thirty years later another agreement was made with them for an additional supply of water through a special pipe to the communal baths"
"The Schulhof was thus the busiest place in the ghetto. It was frequented not only by those who had some particular business to transact, but also by those in quest of the latest news or gossip. Here rabbis and scholars, romancers and poets, philosophers and ghetto politicians, would perambulate for an airing, for friendly discussion, or for solemn reflection; and here merchants, returned from an adventurous journey to Muscovy or Prussia, would eagerly relate what was happening in the outside world. It was, moreover, the object of pilgrimage of all, however mighty, who came from other lands and heard of the Schulhof's fame. Napoleon thrilled the Jewish throng when, during his brief halt in Vilna in 1812, he bestrode the secluded courtyard in wonderment. Thirty-four years later, Sir Moses Montefiore, aroused feelings of less awe but deeper veneration when he was conducted around by a galaxy of grey-bearded rabbis and savants."
-- Israel Cohen, Vilna (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1943), pp. 102-104.Cohen goes on in much greater detail to describe the Great Synagogue and many of the buildings around the Shulhoyf, especially synagogues and study houses. A detailed history and description of the synagogue and the prayer houses of the Shulhoyf can also be found in the recent authoritative Synagogues of Lithuania: a Catalogue, vol. 2 N-Z (Vilnius academy of Arts Press, 2012), 281 ff.
In 1935, about the same time Cohen visited Vilna, Marc Chagall painted the interior of the Gaon's Kloyz.
Since Lithuania attained independence in 1990 there has been on again off again discussion of building something significant at the former synagogue site, including even the far-fetched idea of rebuilding the structure entirely. In 1989, an international competition was held by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania and the Vilnius City Municipality for the creation of the Great Synagogue Memorial In 1990, the competition was won by Israeli architect Tsila Zak in cooperation with Swedish sculptor Willy Gordon. The memorial design integrates actual remains of the original synagogue found through excavation, with reconstruction of representative parts of the original complex supplemented by symbolic architecture. Contracts were signed with the artists only in 2011. That was the year that some excavation were carried out to pinpoint the exact location of the synagogue and to ascertain what material aspects survive.
Following the 2011 excavations and follow-up research, this past summer (2015) Jon Seligman, director of the Excavations, Surveys and Research Department of Israel Antiquities Authority, led a team to carry out a non-invasive geophysical investigation (ground-penetrating radar) of the site. Seligman and his Lithuania colleagues plan to carry out further actual excavation in the near future (2016), assuming sufficient funds are raised.
Some of results of this research were published in the popular press: GPR reveals buried grand synagogue of Vilnius etc. More can be learned on the project website. “When you talk about the synagogue you have to talk about the whole complex,” Seligman told The Times of Israel. “We have a good understanding of the synagogue and a poor understanding of the complex.” According to the project website initial work will concentrate on the the exposure of the Great Synagogue, part of the Gaon‘s Kloyz and of the bathhouse with the mikveh.
In 2011, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius visited the site and said: "The Great Synagogue and the excavations are important not only for Lithuania, but for the global Jewish community. It is a powerful symbol of both a great Jewish heritage, a great tragedy when the entire Jewish community was destroyed, and it is a very powerful symbol for the Jewish future. … The Great Synagogue is not only about Jewish history, it is a particularly important element in Lithuania’s history of the colorful and multi-ethnic Vilnius."
Meanwhile, we are hopeful that as this excavation work moves forward, the Municipality of Vilnius will also step up the pace of removing and returning the many now-known Jewish gravestones that were removed from the Uzupis Cemetery in the 1960s and after and used for building material around the city. It would be an shame and an embarrassment to break ground on excavation of the Great Synagogue while these stones are still used as steps on a church and for other unsuitable purposes.
Read more about the Shulhoyf and Great Synagogue archaeology at the project website and Facebook page: