Dr. Jon Seligman: Vilnius’s Lost Jewish ‘Cathedral’. The Excavation and Presentation of the Remains of the Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf of Vilna

9 May, 2018

Though only a small fraction of the historic synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings  of Lithuania survived the Holocaust, they are an essential and integral part of the cultural heritage of Lithuania. None was more consequential or important than the magnificent Great Synagogue of Vilna (Vilnius), the oldest and most significant monument of Litvak Jewry. Sadly, like most of the edifices of Litvak culture, the Great Synagogue of Vilna and Shulhoyf was ransacked and destroyed. As part of the process to find a fitting memorial for the Synagogue and its associated buildings, we have formed a joint expedition of Lithuanian, Israeli and American heritage professionals, to excavate, preserve and present in-situ the remains of the Great Synagogue as part of an overall scheme for the long-lasting safeguarding of the memory of the Jewish community of Vilnius, the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’.

The First Excavation of the Great synagogue of Vilna, 2011

During the summer of 2011, archaeologist Dr. Zenonas Baubonis of the Kultūros paveldo išsaugojimo pajėgos conducted a limited excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna on the initiative of the Cultural Heritage Department of the Ministry of Culture, with the objective of identifying remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius with the aim of localising the remains, and assessing the nature, scope, methodology and research goals for the future.

In order to identify the exact location of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius it was necessary to collate historical plans and maps and then link them into the cartographic database of the Lithuanian State Coordinate System. It was decided to concentrate on three soundings, totaling 79 square metres: the entrance to the Great Synagogue of Vilnius from the shulhoyf, the site of the Bimah and Aron Kodesh and the north-eastern corner of the Great Synagogue.

In the first sounding, at the site of the entrance to the Great Synagogue, part of the synagogue extension (known as the polish) was exposed. A section of the brick built entrance to the synagogue from the shulhoyf was uncovered with three steps leading down from the entrance to a paved surface.

The second area, measuring 35 square metres, was located one metre NW of the school building at the speculated location of the Bimah and the Aron Kodesh (Torah Ark). Much of the area was filled with the remains of a brick vault that had crashed down on the floor from the roof of the building. The excavation unveiled the eastern wall of the Great Synagogue built of bricks. Within the wall was a niche that is probably set below the Aron Kodesh. This niche is most likely dated to the 17th century, from the time of the first construction of the synagogue. The purpose of this niche, though it may have originally have been part of a window, was not clear. At the opposite side of the sounding was the column base of the Bimah. Adjacent to the base were fragments of a terrazzo floor, some two metres below street level, as noted in the written sources. This led up to the base of the banister wall leading up to the Bimah from the time of the 1893 reconstruction. Finds from this sounding included coins dated to 1664 of the Grand Duke John II Casimir Vasa, minted both in Vilnius and in Poland; a coin from 1880 of Tzar Alexander III; decorative cornice tiles; and floor tiles. The finds were typical of old Vilnius, such as ceramics, ceramic buttons, tile fragments, construction materials and coins. Of special interest were items specifically associated with the function of the synagogue, including bronze ornaments, Torah decorations and bindings of sacred books.


The aims of the new excavation

The successful outcome of the preliminary excavation of 2011 shows the potential of continued excavation at the site to uncover further sections of the Great Synagogue and the surrounding buildings. The excavation set the following research questions:

  1. First and foremost are issues concerning the Great Synagogue itself. Continued excavation of the Great Synagogue should be conducted to expose the remainder of the bimah, the Aron Kodesh, the floor and the southeastern and northwestern walls of the synagogue. It is to be hoped to also reveal remnants of the earlier Old Synagogue, presumably erected in 1573 and possibly even uncover data that could show if the permit of 1593 to rebuild the synagogue was indeed realized. This could also help confirm whether the Great Synagogue built in 1633 was constructed directly upon the foundations of the previous synagogues. Furthermore, the dating of extensions on sides of the synagogue and discovering their development and appearance may shed light not only on the history of the Great Synagogue, but also contribute to the general architectural history of the synagogues in Eastern Europe. Exposure of the foundations of the northeastern facade of the synagogue, a part of the building never captured in photographs or drawings, can provide primary information on the synagogue.


  1. Jewish tradition states that the Old Kloyz, attached to the western corner of the Great Synagogue, was erected in 1440, a dating that seems improbable. The excavation could help to establish the date of the building, as well as the history of the famous arched passage below it.


  1. A number of unresolved issues concern the ChevraKadisha Synagogue, the Shiv’ahKru’im Kloyz and the Gaon’s Kloyz. Written sources note a prayer room of the ChevraKadisha in 1690, while the Shiv’ahKru’im Kloyz was apparently established in 1747 on its ground floor. Archeological evidence may allow correct dating of both prayer rooms and clearer understanding of their early history. The Gaon’s Kloyz is believed to have been built on the site of a house where the Gaon resided. The structure was remodeled as a kloyz in 1768, enlarged in 1855 and completely reconstructed in 1867-1868. The excavations may reveal the building history of this important house of prayer.


  1. The final set of questions to be addressed relates to the water system of the shulhoyf. Written sources inform us that a pipeline was established in 1759 to bring water from the Vingriu springs that belonged to the Dominican friars to the synagogue complex. It supplied water to the communal ‘well’, and apparently to the bathhouse that included a miqveh and the public lavatory. Excavations could reveal the water supply system, the interconnection between the three communal water facilities and even the miqve

The renewed excavation of the Great synagogue and shulhoyf of Vilna – 2015-2017

The renewed excavation of the Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf, as a joint project of Lithuanian, Israeli and other heritage professionals, would concentrate its initial efforts on the exposure of the bathhouse and miqvao‘t of the complex. To this end a large team of professionals was pulled together including: Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority; Zenonas Baubonis and Mantas Daubaras of the Kultūros paveldo išsaugojimo pajėgos; Prof. Richard Freund of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, University of Hartford; Prof. Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Prof. Philip Reeder of Duquesne University; Paul Bauman and Alastair McClymont of Advisian-Worley Parsons, Calgary; Dr. Vladimir Levin of the Centre for Jewish Art, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Prof. Michael Turner of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and Architect Ram Shoef of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

During all three seasons we conducted geophysical surveys, both using Ground Penetrating Radar and Electrical Resistivity Tomography. The aim of this work was to gauge the exact positioning of the underground remains and to better understand the archaeological potential of the site prior to the future investment of further resources to fully uncover the remains through excavation. The results of these surveys isolated large anomalies which, together with the cartographic data, have directed us in the excavations. Given the importance of the bathhouse and the miqveo’t (ritual baths) and the potential of uncovering the baths themselves which should be sunken in the ground, it was decided to initially on concentrate on the bathhouse during the first years of excavation.

Summary of the hictorical data on the bathhouse & Miqve

From the historical documentation, we know that the Jewish streets should have been able to receive water supply and sewage removal through written privilege of the Duchy of Lithuania to use them with minimal payment. However the municipality did not fulfill its commitments to the Ghetto and the Jews were forced to organise their own water supply and sewage removal.  Sources inform us that a pipeline was established in 1759 to bring water from the Vingrių springs that belonged to the Dominican friars to the synagogue complex for the price of 200 gold pieces. Water was supplied to the communal ‘well’, and to the bathhouse that included a miqve and the public lavatory. According to a contract of 1759 Jews were only allowed to channel water to the Shulhoyf itself. Water could only be taken for public use there and no additional pipes to the homes and courtyards were permitted.

Operation of the water system was handed in the 18th century to the Bedek Bayit society, who charged residents a fee for water and services. In the list of payments are the names of the Gaon, the German priest, guilds, shops and kloyzn. The community built a miqve and bathhouse and forbad anybody else to operate a bathhouse or miqve elsewhere in the city. Furthermore, women were forbidden to bath in the river, forcing them to come to bath at the bathhouse and to purify themselves at the mikve in the Shulhoyf, though later this prohibition was loosened and miqva’ot were opening in other parts of the city.

The bathhouse was often in poor condition, requiring repairs. At the end of the 19th century a full restoration plan was submitted to the Tzarist authorities that details the architecture of the bathhouse. The support arch connecting the bathhouse to the back of the Great Synagogue gives the date of the work as 1881. This repair of the bathhouse was probably conducted with a donation of $20,000 by the Joint.  By 1939 the bath was closed and the community were making plans to reopen the installation before the events of WWII caught up with them. Like the Great Synagogue building, the bathhouse was ransacked by the Germans during WWII and demolished together with the other structures of the Shulhoyf by the Soviet authorities in the mid-fifties of the 20th century.

The 2016-2017 seasons of excavation

In 2016, following analysis of the GPR and ERT scans we identified two separate squares totaling 50 square metres in the area to the north of the school where the anomalies present the greatest potential for excavation, in the area that was the bathhouse and miqve of the Shulhoyf. The first part of the excavation was making a decision on which two areas to excavate.

The first area to lay the first trench 24 metres from the corner of the plot. This area showed on the GPR plot (Grid #3) as an area of high archaeological potential, while the ERT scan showed a very clear anomaly, possibly for metal. A trench measuring 2.5 x 10 metres was opened, crossing the place of the bathhouse building from side to side, with the internal space of the Durchhoyf on one side, and the outside of the Shulhoyf on the other. Brick walls crossed this area from side to side, dividing the space into two clear spaces, one covered by a concrete floor over an arched foundation and the second covered in brick.  Below the brick surface was a vault into which a camera was dropped. Within the brick vault a metal heating unit (?) could be identified. The fills contained pieces of brick, rough ceramics, and a large amount ceramics, tiles, charcoal, animal bones and coins dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

The second area, measuring 5×5 metres, what was thought to be the northern edge of the bathhouse, proved ultimately to be outside the Shulhoyf and to belong to the housing block attached to Dominikonų gatve.

After the discovery of the plan of repairs of the late 19th century before the 2017 season of work, we were able to pinpoint the probable location of two miqve baths in the bathhouse. Using geo-referencing we decided to excavate two squares. The geo-referencing was spot on and we struck two baths. The first was a rectangular installation. Two of the five original steps to the bottom of the bath survived. The bath showed the final phase of repair from the end of the 19th century. The bath was built of a concrete surround set in the original brick of the building. The walls were lined with white ceramic tiles, originating in Grodno and Minsk, and a floor of tan tiles, with small black inserts decorating the corner. Only the bottom 50 centimeters of the bath survived, though the steps showed it once had been at least 75 centimetres higher. In the brick at the side was the base of the installation that was probably the otsar, a small pool used to top up the miqve according to Jewish ritual laws. Further brick lined spaces proved to be the bases of ceramic lined stoves that were so typical of buildings of this period.

In a second area, to the west, a second, but very similar pool was uncovered. It was only partially excavated. It was set above a brick vault against the outer wall of the bathhouse. The decoration was identical, though the inserts between the tiles were reddish-brown. In this case a concrete otsar was added as a later feature within the space of the miqve. A drain in the floor led down to a drainage pipe in the vault below.

These excavations show the potential for further discovery in the coming seasons, which will concentrate on further exposure of the bathhouse and on the remains of the Great Synagogue itself.

The future presentation of the Great synagogue and Shulhoyf of Vilna

The position taken towards the commemoration of the remains of the Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf of Vilna needs to be approached through a number of criteria, driven through a value assessment of the site that relates to the site itself, while assessing the place of the synagogue complex in relation to its urban and historic importance and in a wider sense to the Litvak and Jewish world.  Only after this has been done, can consideration given to the content of the site. Together, that is through value assessment and content, a decision can be made in relation to the future commemoration of the site, with legitimate options being a memorial with display of the archaeological remains of the Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf and rebuilding of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf above the archaeological remains.


A preliminary value assessment

This is not the place to provide a judgment of the place of Lithuanian Jewry in the history of both Lithuania and in the Jewish world. Broadly speaking, Lithuania was home to the growth of some of the most important Jewish intellectual movements: religiously (Misnagged-ism, Musar, modern-orthodoxy, haskalah); politically (Zionism, Bundism); culturally (the canonization of Yiddish, the development of Hebrew, theatre, literature); communally and more. Furthermore, the place of the Jew in Lithuanian society, especially economically, was central to the development of Lithuania to a scale that far outstripped the size of the Jewish community. At the very centre of Lithuanian Jewry was Vilnius, or Vilna/Vilne as it was known to its Jewish subjects, and at the centre of the lives of the Jews of Vilna and Lithuania stood the community’s most significant monument – the Great Synagogue. This significance was communal, urban, architectural, cultural, historical, religious and symbolic. With the limited space that can be devoted here to this issue, I will deal only with the symbolic significance of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf.

Clearly, as the earliest, as the major and largest synagogue of the city, as the seat (at times) of the chief Rabbi, as the spiritual home of the Gaon and his school of religious thought, as the office of the Kahal, etc. the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf was the most significant monument of the community. But for a community whose numbers at times reached close to half of the city’s population, this edifice needs to be viewed in a larger context. While there were many churches in the city, the dominant gentile population would have seen (and see today) the Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus as the spiritual centre of the city and the symbol of their religion and culture. In the mirror image, while there were many, indeed close to 150, synagogues in the city, the Jews would have viewed the Great Synagogue of Vilna (known in Yiddish as the City Synagogue – der Shtot Shul) as the spiritual centre of their city and the symbol of their religion and culture. When we relate to the Great Synagogue we need to place the monument on par with the Cathedral, for this was the Cathedral of close to half of the population of the city and they viewed it as such. While the community had many institutions, when a geographical symbol was required by the community, this would become the locus. It was at the Great Synagogue that the community would receive official delegations and where the major ceremonies would be performed. While the Nazi decimated the community, that symbol remained. It was here that the community gravitated after World War II and this was understood by the Soviet authorities. The requirement to destroy the symbol of past Jewish life led to the demolition of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf; the rearrangement of the geography by widening Vokiečių Street and building apartments directly upon buildings of the Shulhoyf, but especially by the construction of a ‘non-place’ directly over the synagogue. Indeed, the poor design and construction of the school was a direct challenge to the monumentality of the destroyed Great Synagogue, for the very existence of the Great Synagogue was to be forgotten through the insignificance of the new building on the site.


The future of the site leans heavily to its future content. Given the small size of the Jewish community of Vilnius and the difficulty the religious community has to fill even the existing Choral Synagogue, there seems little point in rebuilding the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf as a centre of religious life. Furthermore, as a symbol of the Jews of Vilna, the Great Synagogue must be a place of exclusivity, something it can never be as a functioning orthodox synagogue. However, a future as a place representing the history, culture and achievements of the Jewish community of Vilnius, right in the central place where that history started and not at the site where that history ended, is clearly missing in the city. The Jews of Vilnius were citizens of the city, so given the magnitude of the community, the memorial of their place in society needs to be in the centre of modern life of the city. As I see it, a place to remember, study and explain the Jewish community of Vilnius and its culture, together with an exposition devoted to the development and destruction of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf, in a way that integrates the archaeological remains, should be the base content of the site.

The audience is also important. As Laimonas Briedis has noted, Vilnius is a ‘city of strangers’, a city where few of its present inhabitants have long standing roots in the city. A primary audience of the site must be the people who live there who should know something of how their city developed. Furthermore, this must be a centre for the Jews who still live in the city. The history of the Jews of Vilnius is not only about the remembrance of death. There were centuries of Jewish life in this place and the content of the site should address that, in a similar way that the Polin museum in Warsaw deals with the Jewish life of Poland, while not forgetting the tragic events of the Holocaust. Clearly also the site should be a place where the hundreds of thousands of surviving descendents of Litvak Jewry can congregate to become reattached with their ancestral heim (home). (The latter issue requires the use of Hebrew in the explanations, as the this audience of descendents is usually left out of the consideration in most of the new Jewish sites in Europe).

Given the sensitivity on this matter, the content should be curated and cultural. There is no place for commercial enterprise at the site.

Commemorative constuction

With an agreed content for the site, together with an understanding that the remains of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf should be displayed, a design for commemorative construction can be settled. There are a number of possible paths available to deal with the presentation of the site:

  • Line reconstruction of the outer walls of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf using modern materials.
  • A simple display of the archaeological remains, either in the open or under a covering.
  • The building of a memorial while ignoring the authentic remains of the Great Synagogue and the
  • Building a commemorative memorial integrating the remains of theGreat Synagogue and the Shulhoyf.
  • Full reconstruction of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf integrating the archaeological remains in an archaeological basement.

In my opinion there are two legitimate paths that can be chosen that take into account the history of the site, its authenticity and its destruction.

A commemorative memorial – a design which integrates elements of the building, representative construction to suggest the volume of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf, place for permanent and temporary exhibition of the chosen content, and the covered display of the archaeological finds (given the unforgiving Lithuanian climate). The design of Tzila Zak is a legitimate suggestion in this direction and uses well recognized conventions for the integration of form where the original building has been lost. This, or a design using similar parameters, can be a good direction to take the design of a commemorative memorial that re-gives presence to the symbol of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf, replacing the ‘non-place’ that exists there today.

Rebuilding the Great synagogue and the Shulhoyf –  in my opinion, a legitimate case can be made for the rebuilding of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf. Indeed the reconstruction of lost monuments is an issue of some controversy and is taken up in a series of conventions and charters (Charter of Venice – 1964, World Heritage Convention – 1972, Nara Document on Authenticity – 1994, Burra Charter – 1999). I will turn here to clause 86 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention:

“In relation to authenticity, the reconstruction of archaeological remains or historic buildings or districts is justifiable only in exceptional circumstances. Reconstruction is acceptable only on the basis of complete and detailed documentation and to no extent on conjecture.”

… and article 20.1 of the Burra Charter:

“Reconstruction is appropriate only where a place is incomplete through damage or alteration, and only where there is sufficient evidence to reproduce an earlier state of the fabric. In rare cases, reconstruction may also be appropriate as part of a use or practice that retains the cultural significance of the place.”

In an important article on the subject of site reconstruction written by the internationally recognized  conservation expert, Nicholas Stanley-Price, the subject is broached, and limited justifications for full rebuilding are suggested for a number of reasons including: national symbolic value; continuing function or re-use; education and research; site preservation and even tourism promotion. He goes on to state that the objection to reconstruction does not include buildings that have been reconstructed following a natural disaster or a war, because there exists ample documentary evidence of the destroyed buildings (e.g the main hall of the Horyu-ji Temple at Nara, Japan; the Campanile in the Piazza di San Marco, Venice; the Old Town of Warsaw; the Frauenkirche in Dresden; Old Bridge at Mostar).

Stanley-Price sets a series of criteria through which rebuilding can be considered:

  1. A reconstructed building – if based primarily on excavated evidence – must be considered a new building (reconstruction as a creative act).
  2. Reconstruction of one or more buildings is to be considered only if the values (including the landscape value) of a site will be better appreciated than if the buildings are left in a ruined state (the ruin as a source of inspiration or as a memorial).
  3. The surviving evidence for the former building must be fully documented in such a way that this record is always available in the future (a scientific and ethical obligation to record for posterity).
  4. The surviving evidence for the former building, or for different historical phases of it, must not be destroyed or made inaccessible by the very act of reconstructing it (a scientific obligation to allow (built) hypotheses to be verified or rejected).
  5. The evidence – its strengths and its limitations –for the reconstructed form must be interpreted clearly to all visitors (an ethical obligation not to mislead or misinform the public).
  6. Buildings that have been wrongly reconstructed in the past could, on a case-by-case basis, be preserved as they are (reconstructions as part of the history of ideas).

Given the stated limitations and provision of the internationally recognized conventions on the issue, there exists a strong justification for the rebuilding of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf. Primarily the Great Synagogue, as the second Cathedral of Vilnius, garners the symbolic values that warrant its return to the urban fabric of the city. Furthermore, the basic criterion of proper documentation for reconstruction exists in this case as ample plans, photographs and descriptions of the site exist that frankly place this case way in front of the many conjectures exploited in the reconstruction of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius itself. Furthermore, the excavations can provide further data that can help in many cases where otherwise conjecture may be unavoidable.

So where do I see this going. While I can support both leading solutions, I am moving with time to seeing that the appropriate course should be the reconstruction of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf of Vilna. Future generations of residents of the city and the Litvak descendents of those who lived there in the past, require both symbolic halves of Vilnius’ history, represented by the two Cathedrals of Lithuania’s capital.


Nicholas Stanley-Price. 2009. The Reconstruction of Ruins: Principles and Practice. In  Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths.  Edited by Alison Richmond and Alison Bracker.  London. Elsevier.




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