Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Lithuania Conference: How to Commemorate the Great Synagogue of Vilna Site?

Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania. Great Synagogue (destroyed) showing four column support bimah. Photo: J. Bulhak.
Vilnius, Lithuania. School on part of site of Great Synagogue. Photo: Samuel Gruber.
Vilnius, Lithuania. Site of Great Synagogue, Archaeological excavation, 2011. Photo: courtesy Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.
Lithuania Conference: How to Commemorate the Great Synagogue of Vilna Site?
by Samuel Gruber

The organization Litvak World and the Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania are hosting an international conference in Vilnius, Lithuania September 4-5, 2017 on the topic "How to Commemorate the Great Synagogue of Vilna Site?"  The question has been debated since even before the fall of the Communist government in 1990. The standing ruins of the synagogue were demolished between 1955 and 1957, and a school was subsequently built on part of the site.

According to the organizers:
The Great Vilna synagogue, built in 1633, was widely known in Europe for centuries as the center of spiritual, cultural and social life of the Jewish community. It was damaged during the Nazi occupation and totally demolished by the Soviets after the World War II. Archeological research proves that authentic remnants of the Great Vilna synagogue still remain buried 2 meters below the ground level.  The aim of the conference is to discuss the commemoration aspects of the Great Vilna synagogue site, meeting its significance and modern heritage protection standards.
The working languages of the workshop will be English and Lithuanian. Participation is free of charge but registration is required.
You can see the full program here.

I'll be giving a presentation: The Stone Shall be a Witness: Strategies for the Preservation  and Presentation of Destroyed Structures, which will explores alternative strategies for the recovery, exploration, and presentation of destroyed historic buildings in different countries. These include the creation of protected archaeological zones, the symbolic re-creation of building elements, the creation of monuments, and the full scale recreation of lost structures. The presentation weighs how the causes of destruction (war, urban renewal, or natural disaster) and the length of time between destruction and re-consideration affect the goals and methods of preservation.

The illustrated paper will include examples from Germany, Holland, Italy, Ukraine, the United States, and elsewhere. I've written about many of these examples on this blog, and some of these and more examples will be explored in greater detail by many speakers at the conference.

Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania. Great Synagogue and library (destroyed. Photo: J Bulhak.
Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania. Great Synagogue after World War II but before during total destruction.
In the past several decades all sorts of proposals for the Great Synagogue site have been put forward - an archeological park, monuments, museums, reconstructions, and more, but little has been done to commemorate the site or to educate the public about its history and lost architecture other than the erection of a monument to the Vilna Gaon and the creation of single standing information sign. In recent years archaeological excavation at the site have revealed significance remains of the synagogue, which stood as partial ruin until it was demolished in the mid-1950s.

I've described both of these in previous blogposts:

Because the floor level of the sanctuary was significantly below ground level when it was built, it is almost certain that parts of the original floor and the foundations for the massive bimah, columns and other architectural features would be revealed through more comprehensive excavations. This would require the demolition of the modern style school - which most proponents of almost any type of commemorative treatment the site seem to  support (we'll see about this a the conference). In the past and as recently as 2013 government officials in Lithuania (and some in Israel, too) have promoted the idea of restoring or rebuilding the massive synagogue. Many, including myself, have commented in the past that this would be expensive (in the face of so many other Jewish heritage cultural needs), impractical (the building can never be brought back to anything close to what it was or how it was used), ahistoric (at best the this would be a replica), and ultimately inappropriate for a variety of other reasons. I look forward to hearing what others say at the conference - and I will keep an open mind.

Naturally, since 1990, as the Jewish and Holocaust history of Vilnius has been researched, debated, neglected, exhibited and sometimes denied, and as other sites have been commemorated (or not) in Lithuania, the needs for the Great Synagogue site have shifted or perhaps come into clearer focus. Vilnius has become a very new and different city than it was before 1939, and even in the 1980s. Incorporating the past - and especially the Jewish past - is in some ways easier than under Communism, but in many ways harder, too. The placing of responsibility for death and destruction in the Nazi and Communist periods remain highly contested. 

I'm expect that participants at the conference will grapple with these challenges. In the end the future of this site in intertwined with the ways in which Jewish history, art, and architecture are presented throughout the city and the country, and how the events of the Holocaust of presented and understood.

Vilnius, Lithuania. This sign is what commemorates the Great Synagogue today. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2015.

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