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Digging Up Lithuania's Jewish History


This summer, archaeologists in the capital of Lithuania made a remarkable discovery. They dug up the bimah, or central platform, from what was one of the most important synagogues in Eastern Europe, the Great Synagogue of Vilnius. The Nazis destroyed it during the Holocaust, and then Lithuania's Soviet occupiers leveled what remained. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Vilnius.


LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: The Catholic cathedral is one of the main landmarks of Lithuania's capital and a testament in stone to centuries of Polish influence. But you'll see few traces of the city's Jewish heritage when you're walking around the picturesque Old Town. One hundred years ago, 40 percent of Vilnius was Jewish, and there were more than 100 synagogues. During World War II, the Nazis murdered 90 percent of the city's Jews and destroyed their houses of worship, including the Great Synagogue. When the Soviet Union took over Lithuania, the Communists bulldozed those ruins. In its place, they built a nondescript, two-story kindergarten. That's where I meet one of the archaeologists now excavating the site.

JUSTINAS RACAS: I am Justinas Racas, archaeologist from Vilnius, Lithuania.

KIM: This summer, Racas and colleagues from Israel and the U.S. found the bimah, or prayer platform, after digging up the principal's old office. Racas says before the Holocaust, the synagogue was surrounded by a library, bathhouse and other structures.

RACAS: We wouldn't see those buildings that are now by the street, and we could see this place completely built up.

KIM: I'm outside the kindergarten in what used to be a playground. Today it's all dug up. You can see several rows of trenches. They reveal brickwork from cellars and also tiles from the bathhouse.

A small earthmover is pouring dirt into the trenches to protect the excavations from the oncoming winter weather. Racas says the archaeological dig will continue next summer. As a Catholic Lithuanian, he says it's important to him to bring back a part of his country's lost Jewish community.

ANNA AVIDAN: The community is really small. And the Soviet period, you know, it wiped away the religious traditions, as well. So there are not many religious people left here.

KIM: Anna Avidan is the head of a local Jewish cultural organization. She takes me to the Choral Synagogue, the only active synagogue in Vilnius today. Avidan says that growing up under Soviet rule, she had to hide her Jewish identity. And then after Lithuania regained its independence in 1991, most Jews chose to emigrate to Israel and the United States.

AVIDAN: It's a paradox because the times now are favorable for the Jewish life to prosper, but there are no people here.

KIM: For evening prayers, about 10 men, mostly elderly, shuffle over the wooden floors of the Choral Synagogue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Shmuel Yatom, the cantor, leads the congregation in prayer.

SHMUEL YATOM: (Singing in foreign language).

KIM: Yatom comes from a family of cantors that used to live in present-day Ukraine. During the Holocaust, he says, his father saw his parents murdered before his eyes and escaped only by a miracle.

YATOM: For me, it is very important to be present here and to continue my family tradition.

KIM: Yatom is still inspired by the Jewish spirit of Vilnius, even if most of the physical traces have been erased.

YATOM: When you walk down these streets, you'll hear the voices of those pre-war cantors. It gives you strength and the hope is that carrying on this tradition is not in vain.

KIM: Anna Avidan sees the unearthing of the Great Synagogue as an opportunity to make the past even more tangible.

AVIDAN: We have to teach young people about the dangers, how cherishing your nationality can become nationalistic approach and then can lead to stereotypes and then to violence. And the sites of the Jewish heritage, they can teach us these things.

KIM: Once the excavations are over, Avidan says, the site should become a place of learning and warning, but also a place that celebrates life and draws in people the same way as the Great Synagogue once did. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Vilnius, Lithuania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.