U.S. Urged to Help Track Down Jewish Books Stolen in Russia

A New York congresswoman has written to Secretary of State Warren Christopher urging the United States to aid Russia in recovering several dozen medieval Jewish manuscripts stolen from the Russian National Library.

The manuscripts, reportedly stolen over a period of years, include Torah scrolls, Talmudic commentaries and prayerbooks from as early as the 13th century.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), motivated by a press report about the thefts, wrote to Christopher last Thursday.

Maloney wrote that given the shaky economic and political situation in Russia, the United States should offer the assistance of the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies in tracking down the manuscripts.

The Associated Press reported last week that officials of the Russian National Library’s collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts say that many manuscripts have been stolen, most probably over a period of years.

The A.P. article said the documents, which are 250 to 700 years old, are showing up for sale in New York and Jerusalem, at asking prices of millions of dollars. They are being sold at “unofficial auctions,” it was reported.

According to the article, the librarians know that a former employee of the National Library — formerly called the Saltykov-Schedrin Library, and located in St. Petersburg — is the culprit and that the employee lives abroad and has not been charged by the Russian police.

Scholars believe the missing books are part of the Cairo Genizah, a treasure of handwritten manuscripts collected by Cairo’s Jewish community and brought to Russia about 150 years ago by a collector, Abraham Firkovitch.

The article said that last year the Israel Museum in Jerusalem bought an 18th-century ketubah, or marriage contract, without realizing it was stolen.

Lubavitcher Hasidim are familiar with book theft in Russia. They have been trying for decades, most intently for the past two years, to retrieve some 12,000 Lubavitch books that have been kept at the Lenin Library in Moscow.

Two years ago, some Lubavitch books were found in the office of a man who had been removed from his government position. And several Hebrew books from a valuable 400-year-old collection were found by a librarian near a rubbish bin, ostensibly to be spirited away, said Lubavitch spokesman Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky.

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