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In Search of Jewish History

The University of Hartford sends a team of geoscientists to unearth the Vilna Gaon’s Great Synagogue complex

By Cindy Mindell and Judie Jacobson

Prof. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, and a team of geoscientists and students, have been to some of the farthest reaches of the world. They have worked at sites in China, Egypt, two sites in Spain, 25 sites in Israel, and the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland – and they are currently exploring the ancient synagogues of Rhodes, Greece.

Vilna Gaon bust at site of great synagogue

Vilna Gaon bust at the site of the Great Synagogue.

Recently, Freund and his team travelled to the city of Vilnius at the invitation of the Lithuanian government, to examine the massive campus upon which sat the Great Synagogue, where the great Jewish leader, the Vilna Gaon, began what became known as the “Jerusalem of Lita” – the “Lithuanian Jerusalem” – in the 18th century. The synagogue was ransacked and partially destroyed by the Nazis at the end of World War II only to be finally demolished by the Soviets in 1957.

(Note: “Vilnius” originated from the Vilnia River, whose name derives from the Lithuanian word vilnis, “a surge,” or vilnyti, “to surge.” The city has also been known by many derivate spellings in various languages throughout its history. “Vilna” was common in English and is still used in Hebrew.)

Freund’s team includes the dean of sciences at Duquesne University, Prof. Philip Reeder, and Prof. Harry Jol at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, a geophysicist, a Lithuanian archaeologist and an Israeli archaeologist, two students, and Joan Silber, a member of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, who served as an observer and photographer. The project was funded by the commission, together with sponsorship from the William Freund Special Projects Fund at the Greenberg Center, which helped defray some of the project’s costs.

Freund is working in partnership with the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist, Dr. Jon Seligman, whose family was originally from Lithuania, and Dr. Zenonas Baubonis, the Lithuanian Culural Preservation archaeologist, to plan the future of excavations at the site.

In inviting the University of Hartford team to examine the site of the Great Synagogue, the Lithuanian government asked Freund and his team to answer one question: Is there anything left of the Great Synagogue to excavate, conserve, and reconstruct for people from around the world to come and see?

As the Lithuanian prime minister noted during his visit to the excavation site, the findings “are important not only for Lithuania, but for the global Jewish community. [The Great Synagogue] is a powerful symbol of both a great Jewish heritage, a great tragedy when the entire Jewish community was destroyed, and it is a very powerful symbol for the Jewish future. … The Great Synagogue is not only about Jewish history, it is a particularly important element in Lithuania’s history of the colorful and multiethnic Vilnius.”

vilna nicole

University of Hartford junior Nicole Awad and Dr. Richard Freund use Ground Penetrating Radar to map the site of the Great Synagogue compound.

The area that Freund and his team were asked to survey with their state-of-the-art Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is massive: the Great Synagogue complex comprises many buildings on a property the size of a football field. The GPR survey maps the entire sub-surface down to 15 feet below the surface. As the Ledger went to press, a GPR-Slice analysis company in Los Angeles was completing the processing of site data, which will direct Freund and his team where to take a more in-depth look.

With the first stage of their work complete, the team returned from Vilnius earlier this week. Freund will present the team’s findings at “An Evening Devoted to the Legacy of the Vilna Gaon and the University of Hartford’s Great Synagogue of Vilna Project” in November.

As he prepared for his flight home, Freund spoke with the Ledger, explaining Vilna’s place in Jewish history and detailing the site of the Greater Synagogue complex.

The Vilna Gaon and the History of the Jews of Vilna

“The story of Jewish Vilna is not just the story of the Holocaust – it is about the unique culture developed in this region,” says Freund.

In the 15th century Jews were invited to officially settle in Vilnius. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the community reached its apex, with Jews comprising as much as 40 percent of the population of Vilna. The first synagogues in Vilna were erected in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were hundreds of synagogues throughout Lithuania.

Vilna was a crossroads of European Jewry. With the port of Riga to the northwest, the Russian Empire to the east, the Polish Jews to the west, and Germany to the southwest, one might argue that Vilna sat at the geographic center of the largest concentration of Jews in the 18th-century world. If Vilna was the geographic center, the Gaon of Vilna was the physical embodiment of the forces that would ultimately lead to the modern world.

The Gaon of Vilna was, and remains for many, a heroic and transitional figure of medieval to modern Judaism.

Born in 1720, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman was the product of Eastern European Jewry’s great religious leadership model of the yeshiva. He is commonly referred to as the Gaon of Vilna or the Vilna Gaon; “Gaon” is Hebrew for “genius,” a title that was rarely applied to Jewish scholars after the 11th century. When he died in 1797, he was renowned in the European Jewish community. Because of his desire to go to Israel at the end of his life, his influence extended to the small religious enclaves of Tzfat and Jerusalem in the 19th century, thanks to his devoted students.

The Vilna Gaon wrote on many different aspects of Jewish life, not just Jewish law. He was personally a very pious person and even a little ascetic in his middle years. Nonetheless, he thought that science and scientific developments should be translated into Hebrew so that serious scholars could research using the best-known methods of the day in mathematics and astronomy — mainly for calculation of the calendar corrections. He seems to have wanted Jews to have access to scientific developments of the university world while remaining religiously observant.

The Vilna Gaon is well known for having issued edicts of excommunication against early chasidim (1772), mostly because he felt that it didn’t follow the liturgical and leadership models of Lithuanian Jewry that had developed during the 17th century and also because of his fear of the damage done to Lithuanian Jewish life by the messianic movements of Shabtai Tzvi and Jacob Frank. His attempt to blend science and religion was an attempt to head off the developing Jewish Enlightenment movement (the Haskalah), which seemed to advocate giving up religion in the name of science and splitting what he saw as the unifying elements of traditional Ashkenazic Jewry.

The Great Synagogue

The Great Synagogue of Vilna was first built between 1633 and 1635, in a Renaissance-Baroque style, after permission was given to build a stone structure to replace the city’s Old Synagogue, which is thought to have been built in 1573.

A symbol of the importance of the Vilna Gaon, the synagogue was renovated multiple times during his tenure as chief rabbi of Vilna until his death in 1797. The position of the chief rabbi was not easily filled after the death of the Vilna Gaon. His chair in the Great Synagogue sat unoccupied with a stone on his seat as a reminder of the unique position he held.

The Great Synagogue complex became a great center of Torah study and inclusiveness of Lithuanian Jewish movements, that included the Lithuanian Jewish movement of the Mitnagdim. It even had a small prayer rea for Lithuanian Lubavitch, as well as areas for all types of engagement including proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah) and artists, tradesmen and the like.

The size of the area upon which sat the Great Synagogue suggests that the synagogue was large enough to accommodate perhaps as many as a few thousand people. Over the course of time, the synagogue was surrounded with other buildings within the labyrinth-like shulhof, a complex of smaller synagogues and other communal institutions on one large campus. Like the ancient camp of the biblical 12 tribes of Israel, the Great Synagogue complex included the Vilna Gaon’s 12  study-houses, a wide swath of ideological prayer houses, and a large mikveh building. The complex became a great center of Torah study and the heart of the Lithuanian Jewish movement of the Mitnagdim, proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment and religious opponents to Chasidism.

The Great City Synagogue was a tall building with a slanted roof. Church rules throughout Europe stipulated that a synagogue could not be higher than the local church. This posed a problem for architects, who wanted to create a “very high” three-story building but were limited by the regulations of the period.

“They employed one of the great interior architectural solutions for the limitation of the synagogue and in doing so, have provided us with one of the great mysteries for our work,” says Freund: the architects set the synagogue’s floor well below street level so that the building looked from the exterior to be three stories tall, but inside, it rose to five stories from the vantage point of the worshippers.

After centuries of existence, the Jewish community of Vilna was destroyed during the Holocaust and, as World War II came to a close, the most important shrine of the Jews of Lithuania was ransacked and burned by the retreating Germans. Lithuania then fell under Soviet control and, despite attempts to preserve the remnants of the Great Synagogue in the late 1940s, the Soviet authorities demolished the Great Synagogue together with other structures of the shulhof. In their place, the Vytė Nemunėlis elementary school was constructed in a typically unpretentious Soviet style. The school, which covers half of the remains of the synagogue, is still in operation. Other new buildings were erected on the site at street level.

The Project At Hand

Freund’s team examined the plans of the Great Synagogue complex from 1893-1898, as well as plans of the complex as it existed during the early 20th century and photographs of the interior, including a famous and quite detailed Marc Chagall rendering created in the 1930s.

Freund theorizes that the Great Synagogue’s two floors below street level may still be intact and would make an excellent target for excavations and potential excavations. During this first phase, he says, “we mapped the entire front of the synagogue on Zydu Street, revealing most of the features of the building, as well as the entire back of the synagogue and the mikveh building area.”

In Freund’s assessment, the mikveh building, which was included clearly in the 1893 plans, indicates that the water line was coming in from the nearby springs and was at least 30-feet wide and more than 120 feet long. Written sources indicate that a pipeline was laid in 1759 to bring water from the Vingrių belonging to the local Dominican friars to the synagogue complex. It supplied water to the communal well and apparently to the mikveh building. Freund’s team is focusing in particular on locating this building.

“The reason why we focused on this very private but important religious and cultural building,” he explains, “is because it is such a large and distinctive building, and because it was built below the ground we theorize it survived the demolition of the nearby Great Synagogue during the Nazi and Soviet eras.”

“These types of installations are excellent targets because they have to be connected to the water system and sewage systems of Vilna, which were very well-mapped and known to the partisans and rebels who worked out of Vilna at the end of World War II, before the entire ghetto was destroyed,” Freund says.

“Excavations could reveal the entire water supply system and reveal what other secrets may still be buried in the sewers of Vilna from the Jewish community from the pre-war times and during the last moments of the ghetto of Vilna,” Freund says.

Freund sees this first phase of the Great Synagogue project as a triumph both professionally and personally.

Freund theorizes that the Great Synagogue’s two floors below street level may still be intact and would make an excellent target for excavations and potential restoration and preservation.

“For me personally this project has provided me with a deep sense of satisfaction to help recover a significant part of our European Jewish heritage in much the same way that our Rhodes project is helping to preserve Sephardic Jewry and our Nazareth project preserves a significant part of Greek Orthodox history in the Holy Land,” he says.

Dr. Richard Freund will present the team’s findings at “An Evening Devoted to the Legacy of the Vilna Gaon and the University of Hartford’s Great Synagogue of Vilna Project:” Thursday, Nov. 19, 7-9 p.m., Mali 2, Charles Dana Hall, University of Hartford, featuring Prof. Eliyahu Stern of Yale University, author of The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism.

The program is free and open to the public but seating is limited. Information: (860) 768-4964.

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