Vilnius announces renovation and commemoration plans at the site of the city’s former Great Synagogue
In conjunction with the announcement of plans to renovate the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, the Municipality of Vilnius recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Jewish Community of Lithuania and the Good Will Foundation to commemorate the sacred historical site with a memorial garden square and Jewish community centre.
The Great Synagogue’s memorial square will be located at the site of the former building and its complex, and the Jewish community centre will be used in part to provide information about the Great Synagogue to the general public.
“The majority of Vilnius’ residents know that the city used to be referred to as the Jerusalem of the North. The history of Jewish spirituality and science can be seen in the faded Hebrew writing inscribed on the buildings of the former Vilnius Ghetto, memorial boards and monuments,” says Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius. “We have recently agreed to create a new centre of attraction for Lithuanians and foreigners in the location of the Great Synagogue, which was destroyed by the Soviets.”
Archaeological excavations on the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius were started in 2011. Archaeologists unearthed especially important parts of the pulpit (bima) – the foundations of two columns, two mikveh (ritual pools), a huge external rear wall of the Great Synagogue, and a part of its floor. In addition, embossed inscriptions with references to the Old Testament have been found on the walls by the bima – people are mentioned and the Book of Genesis is quoted in one of them, and another contains lines from the religious psalms.
The precise date of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius’ construction is not known. Historians believe that it was built after 1633, when Wladyslaw IV Vasa granted Litvaks the privilege to establish their own quarter in Vilnius. Moreover, the synagogue’s architect is also not known.
The Great Synagogue of Vilnius was among the biggest Jewish religious institutions in Eastern Europe. It was known as an important Jewish spiritual and educational centre, which contributed to Vilnius becoming known as the Jerusalem of the North. The synagogue was 25 m long, 22.3 m wide and 12.1 m tall, with two meters of the structure placed underground. It is said that this religious home was the most beautiful and largest synagogue built in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. According to some historical sources, it could accommodate up to 5,000 worshipers.
The Great Synagogue and other buildings of its complex were heavily damaged during World War II. Its remains were destroyed in 1955-1957. A kindergarten-nursery was built on the site of the Great Synagogue in 1964.
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