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University of Hartford-Led Archaeological Team Helps Uncover the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania


Posted 07/14/2015
Posted by David Isgur


Professor Richard Freund and students Nicole Awad and Alexis Pingel working onj the subsurface mapping that will unlock the "secrets" of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.

Professor Richard Freund and students Nicole Awad and Alexis Pingel working onj the subsurface mapping that will unlock the "secrets" of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.

A picture of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, Lithuania, from approximately the 1930s.

A picture of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, Lithuania, from approximately the 1930s.

A team of archaeologists, cartographers, geoscientists and art historians, including Professor Richard Freund, director of the University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, has mapped the sub-surface of the 17th/18th-century Great Synagogue of Vilna, Lithuania — a former hub of Jewish life that was ransacked by the Nazis at the end of World War II and ultimately demolished by the Soviets in 1957.

Using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), the team has mapped the sub-surface of the now buried Great Synagogue and the massive campus upon which it sat, enabling the government and the community to plan future excavations at the site. The team also spent the time in Lithuania planning the next stages of the work with the Culture Ministry, Vilnius University, the Vilna Gaon State Museum, and the Jewish Community of Lithuania after mapping the locations of an entrance and steps into the synagogue, the central shrine for the Torah scrolls, the bemah (the area where services are led), and the Jewish bathhouse and ritual bath system attached to the Great Synagogue complex all located 4-8 feet below the street. Freund’s team has worked on similar projects in Israel, Poland, Spain and Greece over the past two decades.

This time the University of Hartford is working in partnership with Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Dr. Zenonas Baubonas of the Lithuanian Cultural Preservation Authority, along with the municipality of Vilnius (known as “Vilna” in Yiddish). Other members of the team include Professor Philip Reeder, dean of the Bayer School of Science at Duquesne University; Professor Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Joan Silber, a member of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad; and two students — Nicole Awad from the University of Hartford and Alexis Pingel from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.

This is the second major project and discovery by this team during this summer. In June, the team (which included University of Hartford Adjunct Professor of Archaeology and Arabic Language and Culture Maha Darawsha and University of Haifa archaeologist Shalom Yanklovitz) uncovered an ancient mosaic floor in Nazareth, Israel in one of the earliest churches in Nazareth — the Church of the Annunciation (Greek Orthodox). The mosaic is thought to have been created after the fourth century visit of Queen Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who came to the Holy Land to establish Christian pilgrim sites for the new religion of Rome.

“The partners in this Lithuanian project are working to rediscover the ‘secrets’ of the Great Synagogue before the evidence is no longer available. Every year we wait allows decay and disintegration of material culture that lies buried. The objects will speak to a once great center of Jewish life,” Freund said. “Like the books and literature that made the Great Synagogue and Vilna Judaism ‘great’ the material culture, the art, the metal and wood-work, the frescoes, and ritual objects all are unique to this Jerusalem of Lithuana.”

During meetings with the Jewish community, for example, interest was expressed in having the team examine areas where it is suspected “lost” Jewish cemeteries may exist and the Vilna Gaon State Museum expressed interest in the team helping to identify the mass graves in the vast forest area outside Vilna in Paneriai. These will presumably be part of the team’s 2016 work there, Freund said.

One of the Great Synagogue’s “secrets” is that it was purposely built six feet below street level to add height for the building’s impressive roof and space for the needs of the community. This feature may have preserved below ground much of the floor and foundations of the synagogue. When it was bulldozed in 1957, all of the remains were presumably sealed in their original places.

The Jewish community of Lithuania was one of the most significant centers of Jewish life in the world before World War II, with a population of several hundred thousand Jews that spread from the Baltic Sea to Russia in the east, with hundreds of wood and brick synagogues in rural areas and in cities. The Great Synagogue of Vilna and its large campus was the hub of this dynamic Jewish life, leading to the nickname “The Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

After centuries of existence, the Jewish community of Vilna was destroyed during the Holocaust and, as World War II came to a close, the Great Synagogue was ransacked and burned by the retreating Germans. Lithuania then fell under Soviet control, and Soviet authorities demolished the Great Synagogue. Today, an elementary school sits on the site of the former synagogue but using the GPR map strategic excavations may yet salvage what is still hidden below.

Freund will present the team’s findings at “An Evening Devoted to the Legacy of the Vilna Gaon and the University of Hartford’s Great Synagogue of Vilna Project” on Thursday, Nov. 19, from 7 to 9 p.m., in Charles Dana Hall, University of Hartford, featuring Professor Eliyahu Stern of Yale University, author of The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism.

The program is free and open to the public but seating is limited. For more information, contact the University of Hartford’s Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at 860.768.4964 or mgcjs@hartford.edu.

Professor Richard Freund and students Nicole Awad and Alexis Pingel working onj the subsurface mapping that will unlock the "secrets" of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.

Professor Richard Freund and students Nicole Awad and Alexis Pingel working onj the subsurface mapping that will unlock the "secrets" of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.

A picture of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, Lithuania, from approximately the 1930s.

A picture of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, Lithuania, from approximately the 1930s.