Restoration work in the old Jewish Quarter of Vilnius, Lithuania led to an emotional discovery last week – the finding of the site of the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, a five-story structure that sat at the heart of what was known in pre-Holocaust days, as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
“We now have the precise spot where the holiest part of the synagogue stood,” said project head Emmanuel Zingeris, speaking to Lubavitch.com.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius visited the site Friday. “For us it is very important to bring back an authentic part of Lithuanian history which included the history of the Jewish community,” he said. 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”.
Lithuanians were willing participants in Nazi genocide of Jews, and began murdering and torturing Jews in the street months before the Nazis arrived, claiming that the Jews sided with the much-hated Russians in the war (understandable, if true, since the choice was between Russia and Nazi Germany). There are those who say that every step in LIthuania is a step on Jewish blood. The many forest pits containing tens of thousands of bodies of Jews are easily found, but the country did not prosecute any of its citizens for acts of genocide.
The Great Synagogue, famed for its beauty, was built on a deep foundation in order to comply with local rules of the time, which stipulated that no synagogue could stand higher than a church. The underground portion gave the synagogue an internal height of five stories.
The structure was partially destroyed by the Nazi army during the Holocaust, and later faced a second demolition at the hands of Soviet authorities, who built over it.
The government of Lithuania is now sponsoring a dig to uncover the parts of the synagogue that can be accessed, and to restore the Jewish Quarter, turned later into a ghetto, and several smaller synagogues as well. In addition to locating the site of the Ark in which the Torah scrolls were held, excavation crews have found part of the original floor, and part of one of the four pillars around the central platform (bima) on which prayer leaders would stand.
Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinskyshul, the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Lithuania, described the renovation project as “a triumph for every Jew.”