Hidden treasures uncovered at Jewish holy site

  • 2011-08-10
  • By Matt Garrick

VILNIUS - One of the lost Jewish treasures of Vilnius has been unearthed, after a gruelling nearly two month excavation process, near the city’s Old Town, that recently came to completion. The archaeological dig to uncover the remains of Vilnius’ Great Synagogue, some of which cannot be disturbed due to its being partially located underneath a kindergarten off Vokieciu Street in the city’s center, was part of a government-funded operation: apparently bidding to show Lithuania’s keen interest in acknowledging its Jewish past.

During Nazi occupation in World War II, the Great Synagogue was practically destroyed, and was further reduced to rubble in the time of the Soviet regime.
Due to the extent of past damage, archaeologists were stunned to detect major portions of the synagogue’s structural foundations still intact, and following its recovery they were at work in conserving the relics for the future.

Artifacts found during the dig process included stained glass, ceramics and coins stretching through time periods from the 17th century to the Soviet era. The most important discoveries were a well preserved series of holy sites.
“There was no knowledge about the real situation of the synagogue’s state before we began the dig. We didn’t know if there were any walls which still remained,” explained Mindaugas Maciulis, project manager of the Cultural Heritage Salvage Group responsible for the excavation.

“Using ultra-modern technology, including a 3D laser scanner, we were able to determine the situation of the trenches: the sizes, the depths, in millimeters. We found items of major cultural significance, including the main entrance, and the Aron Kodesh [an ornamental closet which once contained precious documents], which is the holiest part of a synagogue,” he confirmed.

“It’s the first modern archaeological dig related to Jewish history in Lithuania. It’s significant for their culture, because now we all know some of the synagogue still survived, and can be shown,” he observed.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius visited the remains of the synagogue last month, reportedly with great excitement at the findings. Following his tour, Kubilius mentioned the archaeological results were “important not only for Lithuania, but for the global Jewish community,” adding further, “It is a powerful symbol of both a great Jewish heritage and a great tragedy, when the entire Jewish community was destroyed.”

While government investment into rebuilding Lithuanian Jewish culture was viewed by community figures as a positive - the Lithuanian parliament, the Seimas, decided in June to compensate Lithuanian Jewish people 128 million litas (around 37 million euros), over the next decade for loss of property and damages caused during the Nazi and Soviet regimes - some experts remained skeptical as to their incentives.

“By bringing to the surface Jewish artifacts, and Jewish places, it’s like the government can go to the European Union and say, ‘look, we’re trying to celebrate Jewish history and Jewish culture.’ But in reality, all the old wooden synagogues around the country are crumbling,” said Jake Levine, program director of SLS Lithuania, which conducts an annual series of workshops showcasing past and present Jewish life in the country.
“It’s about showing the international community they are interested in Jewish affairs, while not really being interested in Jewish affairs. It’s a way of getting themselves out of bigger issues, like why they allow rampant, huge anti-Semitic marches on Independence Day,” he argued.

Indeed, on March 11 this year, a day celebrating the relinquishing of power from the Soviet Union, Lithuanian neo-Nazis paraded through the streets of the city of Kaunas, claiming themselves as “mainstream patriots,” as Web site DefendingHistory.com reported.

The news surrounding the excavation of the synagogue pulled the focus off a number of anti-Semitic vandalisms which have occurred at spots of Jewish importance around the country over the last weeks.
A memorial stone at the harrowing Holocaust-era Ponary Massacre location was recently spray-painted in red Russian Cyrillic with the words, “Hitler Was Right,” written underneath a swastika. The site, only one train station’s journey from Vilnius, by the edge of the village Paneriai, was where 100,000 Jews were allegedly shot and burnt between 1941 and 1944.

A main cause of such events has been cited as the lack of education in Jewish matters for certain spheres of Lithuanian society. “Something which the government could do is educate more people about tolerance, and the cultural life of minorities,” commented Levine. “It should be mandatory for schoolchildren from Vilnius to go to Paneriai, at some point,” he furthered, though concluded by suggesting Lithuanian culture was not anti-Semitic overall.

“It’s true in the Western press, as far as Jewish issues are concerned, that people only hear about the negatives [of Lithuania]. I don’t really feel like this is an anti-Semitic country. Or any more so than other countries in Europe,” he countered. 
During the coming days, the SLS partnered Jewish Lithuania program will head workshops and tours to places of Jewish cultural value, including the Rudniki Jewish partisan base near Vilnius (which was utilized during World War II) to showcase to foreigners and locals alike almost forgotten elements of Lithuanian Jewish history.