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Pact with Poland concludes long journey for rare Haggadah

NEW YORK, Dec. 31 (JTA) — A rare medieval Haggadah will soon head for its new home at the National Library at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The 14th-century illuminated Wolf Haggadah will be in its new home in mid-January as a result of a joint effort by the World Jewish Congress and the Polish government, Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, said in an interview late last week. In addition, a 23-foot cross on display at Auschwitz and religious symbols on the former Carmelite convent at the camp will come down “within days.” The moves come after Polish officials and WJC representatives recently met in New York. The fate of the Haggadah, worth more than $1 million, has been in question for years. Albert Wolf, a German Jew who died in 1907, had left the Haggadah to the Berlin Jewish community. The Nazis stole it in 1938, and it was discovered in 1944 by Russian troops in Poland. The Russians turned it over to the Historical Institute in Poland. Then, a Montreal Jewish man, Nathan Hecht, claimed to have bought the manuscript and in 1989 wanted a Swiss auction house to sell it. The WJC, acting on behalf of the East and West Berlin Jewish communities, succeeded in 1990 in having the Geneva courts seize the Haggadah to prevent its auction. Later in 1990, the Polish government and the WJC reached an agreement saying that they would jointly fight court appeals and that if their efforts were fruitful, the Haggadah would be officially returned to Israel. Steinberg called that agreement a “good-faith gesture.” On Oct. 18, 1996, after a lengthy series of appeals, a Geneva court ruled in their favor, and the decision has since taken effect. The Haggadah, when released from the custody of the court, will first be be taken to the Polish Embassy in Bern. It will then be transported to Israel by Tadeusz Polak, Polish undersecretary of state at the Culture and Art Ministry, who took part in the New York meeting; the Israeli ambassador; and WJC representatives. Once in the Jewish state, the Haggadah will be officially handed over to the National Library at a mid-January ceremony to be attended by top officials of the Polish government, Steinberg said. Meanwhile, the cross at Auschwitz, erected in 1987, “casts a long shadow” on the camp, Steinberg said.
Steinberg said the religious symbols displayed on the building that had served as a convent until 1993 would also come down. The nuns now live across the road in an interfaith complex. At least one Jewish group expressed skepticism about the agreement for the removal of the cross. “If it will happen, it is a good thing,” Rabbi Avi Weiss, who for years led the effort against the presence of a convent at Auschwitz, said in an interview Monday. But he added, “Let no one be fooled. The attempt to Christianize Auschwitz continues.” Weiss, head of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-AMCHA, said, “Auschwitz still has crosses at the Field of Ashes and a Catholic parish church occupies a former SS headquarters building at Birkenau.” Weiss said he has respect for the existence of churches, “but not at Auschwitz.”