Archaeologists Expose Remains of Vilna, Lithuania Synagogue Destroyed by Nazis and the Soviets #lithuania #announcements

Jan Meisels Allen

The Great Synagogue of Vilna Built in 1630s
Photo from Israel Antiquities Authority


A joint excavation by Israeli and Lithuanian archeologists, over six years, exposed the Torah ark and bimah of the Great Synagogue of Vilna. The dig also revealed a small, hand-shaped pointer known as a yad that was used during readings of the Torah.  The synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust and later razed by the Soviets  in the 1950s.


The team used ground-penetrating radar to locate the new finds.


Built in the 17th century, the Great Synagogue was part of a large Jewish center that included schools, ritual baths, prayer halls and a community council. The building itself was constructed with its first floor well before street level in deference to a rule that synagogues couldn’t be built higher than churches.  This allowed the structure to appear only three stories tall when, in fact, its inside “soared to over five stories.”


According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the city was home to about 55,000 Jews, in 1939, who represented more than a quarter of the total population.


Germany’s occupation of Vilnius began on June 24, 1941. Nazi forces pushed the city’s Jews into two ghettos and began mass killing operations shortly thereafter. By the end of the year, the Germans had massacred about 40,000 Jews at a killing site established in Ponary forest, outside Vilnius.


The Soviet Union liberated the city in 1944. After the war ended, Soviet authorities leveled the partially destroyed synagogue and built a school atop its ruins. Per the Times of Israel, the Soviets razed all that remained of the grand house of worship between 1956 and 1957. ( There is a video in Hebrew on YouTube regarding the find:


The dig uncovered two impressive staircases visible in images taken of the synagogue prior to its destruction. The team also found the entire façade of the bimah, as well as the remains of one of four pillars that held up the building’s roof.


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Thank you to David Oseas, Webmaster for JGS Conejo Valley and Ventura County (JGSCV) for sharing the information with us.


Jan Meisels Allen

Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee