Excavating Vilnius’s Great Synagogue

Sept. 3 2021

Over the past six years, a joint Israeli and Lithuanian archaeological team has made strides in uncovering the main synagogue in the city Jews called Vilna, along with the courtyard or shulhoyf that surrounded it, which, in typical East European fashion, included numerous smaller houses of prayer and study, along with other communal buildings. Livia Gershon report on their findings:

Vilnius was once known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” 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 below 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,” notes the Vilna Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf Research Project on its website.

Though Poland had seized control of Vilnius, [which from 1793 to 1915 had been part of Russia], during the interwar period, it ceded the city and surrounding area back to Lithuania in October 1939, shortly after the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland began. Per the United States Holocaust Museum, the city was then home to about 55,000 Jews, 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.

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Read more at Smithsonian

More about: East European Jewry, Lithuania, Synagogue, Synagogues

 

Why the Recent Uptick of Israeli Activity in Syria?

Sept. 23 2022

On September 16 and 17, the IDF carried out airstrikes in the vicinity of Damascus, reportedly aimed at Iranian logistical centers there. These follow on an increase in the frequency of such attacks in recent weeks, which have included strikes on the Aleppo airport on August 31 and September 6. Jonathan Spyer comments:

The specific targeting of the Aleppo airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its “air bridge” to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land [via Iraq]. But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Teheran. Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension. There are a number of factors that contribute to this emergent picture.

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria. . . . There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal. The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets which will be maintained. The maintenance of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow. But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine. Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once.

Secondly, assuming that some last-minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the [2015 nuclear deal] is not imminent. In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone. Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture toward the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. . . . The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflects this changing of the season.

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Read more at Jonathan Spyer

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syria, War in Ukraine