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In Search of Recent History, Duquesne Professor Works to Uncover Eastern Europe’s Largest Synagogue

A team including a Duquesne University professor is working with history only 55 years old as it explores what once was the largest synagogue in Eastern Europe-on the heels of discovering a church floor in Nazareth believed to date to the 4th century.

The Great Synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania, now a primarily Catholic capital city once called the "Jerusalem of Lithuania," has ties to the Holocaust and the Soviet era.

Researchers Dr. Philip Reeder, dean of Duquesne's Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences; Dr. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford; Dr. Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Dr. Jon Seligman and Lithuanian Cultural Preservation archaeologist Dr. Zenonas Baubonis have spent a week at the site preparing for future excavations.

The researchers are creating plans of sub-surface locations of the remains of the Great Synagogue and find themselves piecing together information about the structures, damaged in the Nazi era and demolished only in 1957, during the Soviet era.

The juxtaposition of the team's recent archaeological work of the ancient church with this work on a more recent structure, Reeder said, illustrates how quickly history can be lost. "We're talking about what has left people's minds in only 50-some years," said Reeder, director of mapping on both projects. "We are trying to not let this important piece of history slip into oblivion."

Housing and a school now sit on top of the site believed to hold the Great Synagogue, which once accommodated thousands. The synagogue reached its apex during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Jews comprised up to 40 percent of the population of Vilnius. Plans from 1893-1898 show a complex with 12 institutions and indicate a 30- by 120-foot bathhouse area, including a pool for rituals. Using geophysical analysis, the team located the front portion plus the back of the synagogue and its bathhouse.

"Little is known or photographed about these private but important religious and cultural buildings," said Reeder. "We focused on this structure because it is so large and distinctive. The bathhouse was built below ground level, so we theorize that some artifacts may have survived demolition."

Ground-penetrating radar is helping the team determine where subsurface structures might be. Reeder will develop diagrams that combine existing maps so that information can be visualized in a different way.

Already, team members plan to return next year to help locate unidentified mass graves believed to hold the remains of 70,000 Jews and other Lithuanians murdered by Nazis in the nearby Paneriai forest.

In June, this team discovered a mosaic floor in Nazareth that appears to be from one of the earliest churches in the history of Christianity, a shrine where tradition holds the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus to Mary. The team will return to Nazareth in August to document and complete the excavation.

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