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Blugold geographers help rediscover ancient synagogue

| Denise Olson

As part of an international team of researchers, Dr. Harry Jol, professor of geography and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and senior geography major Alexis Pingel, New Auburn, helped to discover the remains of a 17th-century synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Vilna SynagogueThe Great Synagogue of Vilna, the oldest and most significant Jewish monument in Lithuania, was destroyed during the Holocaust. The June discovery, located where a school now stands, includes sections of the Great Synagogue and possible remnants of its mikveh, or ritual bath. 

The research used ground-penetrating radar (GPR), which showed significant remains just below the surface. The centuries-old synagogue, known to have been the heart of the Lithuanian Jewish community, was ransacked and burned by the Germans during World War II. What remained of the structure was later demolished by the Soviets, who built a school on the site. Full excavation is planned for 2016, in the hopes of exposing the remains for further study and display. 

Describing the location in an interview with, Jol said, "Being in an urban environment also presents its challenges with subsurface electrical, sewer, gas lines and other buried items." 

The team was required to work around the school building, trees and driveways — less than ideal conditions for an archaeological site. 

"My role was to operate the GPR unit, set up the search grids and decide which areas to look at," said Pingel, "but as an undergraduate student, I was there mostly to gain research experience."

Pingel, whose travel costs were partially funded by the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, had previously participated in study abroad and collaborative research, and saw this as an excellent opportunity to further advance her research skills. However, she says that the cultural experience also had a tremendous impact on her.

"I discovered how closed off to world history I really was," Pingel said. "It really put it into perspective once I was there and saw how many people are still affected by this synagogue. (The Holocaust) was a devastating time for the Jewish community, and I hope that our research can bring a sense of peace to those still there."

Photo captions

Top photo: From left, Dr. Harry Jol, Alexis Pingel, Dr. Richard Freund (University of Hartford) and Hartford student Nicole Awad on site in Vilna, Lithuania, using ground-penetrating radar. (University of Hartford photo)

Photo within story: The Great Synagogue of Vilna, circa 1930s.