Following incidents in Zhitomir and Kiev, Ukrainian Jewish leaders are protesting the seizure of Torah scrolls by the government archives.
Most of the scrolls now being used in Ukrainian synagogues were acquired by the state archives and museums through communist and Nazi looting.
After Ukrainian independence in 1991, in the absence of a restitution law, some of the scrolls were lent to the synagogues, but on shaky terms. Recently the archives, citing concern for the scrolls’ welfare, have been reclaiming them.
Two such incidents occurred recently. Last week, 10 scrolls were taken from a Jewish day school in Zhitomir, and this week the Kiev archives attempted to claim scrolls from the city’s main synagogue.
On Feb. 18, the Central Brodsky Synagogue in Kiev received a letter signed by the head of the Ukrainian State Archives Committee demanding that 18 scrolls lent to the Jewish community be returned to the state archives for inspection.
The letter, which arrived just four days after the community in Zhitomir had its scrolls seized, triggered a wave of protest from community leaders, who said it was time for Ukraine to adopt a restitution law that would return scrolls to the Jews who originally owned them.
The scrolls “belong only to the Jewish people and the Jewish communities,” the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, a leading Jewish group in the country, said in a statement Wednesday.
“The federation categorically insists on the restoration of historical justice and on the return of Torah scrolls” to religious communities and organizations, the statement said.
The group said the issue of the scrolls should be decided as soon as possible and separately from the more complex issue of restitution of other former communal property, such as buildings seized from congregations and individuals.
On Feb. 14, representatives of the local state archives in Zhitomir in Central Ukraine confiscated 10 scrolls from the local community, claiming they could have been damaged since they were lent to the community more than two years ago.
Local Jewish leaders deny accusations that they altered or mishandled the scrolls.
Olga Ginzburg, the head of the Ukrainian State Archives Committee, told JTA on Wednesday that similar safety concerns prompted her agency to request the return of the 18 scrolls lent to the Central Brodsky shul.
“We lent the scrolls to the Jewish communities, but this is state property and we should check their safety,” she said.
The synagogue’s rabbi was unimpressed by Ginzburg’s reasoning.
“These are our Torahs,” Moshe Azman, also one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis, told JTA. “I already sent a letter to Ginzburg telling that we won’t give back our Torahs. Moreover, I demanded the return of all Torah scrolls from Ukrainian archives and museums to Jewish communities of Ukraine.”
Ginzburg said the top priority of the state archives is the safety of the scrolls.
“We have a precedent in Zhitomir shul,” she said. “We should first check the scrolls properly.”
The Central Brodsky synagogue had not violated any terns of the lending contract with her archives, the director of the Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine, Olga Muzychuk, told JTA.
“But the case in Zhitomir Jewish community has put us on alert,” she said.
It remained unclear whether other scrolls in dozens of congregations across Ukraine will similarly be taken back to the archives in the near future.
Jewish leaders said it was unnecessary to do any checks.
“We won’t return any more Torah scrolls,” All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress President Vadim Rabinovich said. “The modern Ukrainian authority shouldn’t become like the Bolsheviks.”
A senior official with President Viktor Yuschenko’s administration told JTA this won’t happen.
“No more returns” should take place, religious affairs official Alexander Sagan said. He told JTA that officials will promptly investigate the cases in Zhitomir and Kiev.