Copyright © 2015   Jon Seligman.  All Rights Reserved.
World Heritage - The Vilnius Historic Centre
Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Places as unique and diverse as the the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Old City of Jerusalem and prehistoric painted caves of Lascaux make up our world’s heritage.

What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. From 1972 this is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.  Today over 1000 sites, distributed across the globe, are listed by the World Heritage Centre as sites of outstanding universal value, according to strict criteria stated in the convention and are protected by it.

The Vilnius Historic Centre was inscribed as a world heritage site in 1994 according to criteria ii and iv, the city's outstanding universal value demonstrated through it being "an outstanding example of a medieval foundation which exercised a profound influence on architectural and cultural developments in a wide area of Eastern Europe over several centuries" and "in the townscape and the rich diversity of buildings that it preserves, Vilnius is an exceptional illustration of a Central European town which evolved organically over a period of five centuries". The explanation of the inscription notes how "together with the Lithuanians, other nations of Grand Duchy of Lithuania with their languages, religions and cultures, shaped the development of Vilnius as an outstanding, multicultural city, in which the influences of the West and the East were merged. Christianity, dominating since the Middle Ages, and the growing importance of Judaism led to exemplary material manifestations of these religious communities which include the churches of St Michael, St Stephen, St Casimir, All Saints, and St Theresa".

The inscription notes especially that, "The multinational community of the city that developed in history is more homogeneous today; hence the manifestations of a multicultural city must be especially treasured, safeguarded and exposed." a fact made all the more conspicuous by "the empty place of the Great Synagogue, demolished after World War II". The loss of both the population and the monuments of that "multinational community" is all the more clear when you consider that the population of the city in 1897 was 40% Jewish, 31% Polish, 20% Russian and 2% Lithuanian; in 1931 66% Polish, 28% Jewish, 5% Russian and 1% Lithuanian, whereas today 63% are Lithuanians, 16% Poles, 15% Russian and make up under 0.4% of the city's residents. In this situation, finding something of the Great Synagogue, beyond being an empty space, gives substance and significance to the statement that "manifestations of a multicultural city must be especially treasured, safeguarded and exposed".
Bringing Lithuanians & Litvaks Together -  A Communal Vision
The Great Synagogue and its associated buildings were the most important monuments of Lithuanian Jewry and a central part of the heritage of Vilnius and Lithuania. The tragic events of the twentieth century, that included the physical annihilation of the Jewish community of Vilnius and the destruction of its built cultural heritage, has left the city devoid of the major monuments that signified the place of the Jews in the culture and history of Vilnius.  The potential archaeological discovery of remains of both the structure of, and artifacts from, the Great Synagogue and of the buildings of the Shulhoyf, will provide a contribution to raising awareness of the role of Jews to the development, history and culture of Vilnius. It will also give material substance to future plans to perpetuate the memory of the Great Synagogue and the Jewish community as part of future plans to establish a fitting memorial at the site.

As part of the process to find a fitting memorial for the Synagogue and its associated buildings, this project has, as part of its goals, the formation of a joint expedition of heritage professionals, with the aim of excavating, preserving  and presenting the remains of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf, as part of an overall scheme for the long-lasting safeguarding of the memory of the Jewish community of Vilnius, the 'Jerusalem of Lithuania'.

After proper analysis of the quality and significance of the finds, due thought should be given to the integration of the finds in a proposal for a Jewish Memorial Centre in Vilnius to create an appropriate commemorative monument for the Great Synagogue, the Shulhoyf and the Jewish community of Vilnius at the site, an integral part of the World Heritage site of the Historic Centre of Vilnius. A future 'Jewish Memorial Centre in Vilnius' at the site of the Great Synagogue, and the Shulhoyf aims at preserving the memory of Europe’s multicultural heritage through the establishment of a memorial to the Jewish cultural, communal and intellectual contribution and achievements to the history of the city. Central to the advancement of the project is the exposure of any remains of the original structures that have survived at the site, that will be integrated, where possible, into the final design, while any objects discovered will be presented in an on-site exhibition.

This excavation of the Great Synagogue and the Shulhoyf, as a joint project of Lithuanian, Israeli and American heritage professionals, presents an opportunity that goes far beyond the research possibilities that provide for a better understanding of the Great Synagogue and the surrounding structures. By working together, Lithuanians, Israelis and Litvaks from around the world, emphasis can be placed on the importance of a Jewish built cultural heritage as an inseparable part of Lithuanian heritage that needs to be celebrated by all and preserved for perpetuity.

It is the hope of the team that the joint efforts of professionals, volunteers and funders of all communities, will meet in a joint project that can bring together the widely dispersed community of Lithuanians and Litvak Jews while preserving part of their mutual heritage for the future.

The Great Synagogue and the excavations "are important not only for Lithuania, but for the global Jewish community. It 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 colourful and multiethnic Vilnius."

Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius during his visit to the excavation site of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius in 2011.
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