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.