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Op-Ed: Russia should return the Schneersohn collection

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — During the 1990s, the world was seized with stories of Nazi plunder and heirless property from the Holocaust era. Stolen bank accounts, looted artwork, confiscated real estate and payments for slave labor made front-page headlines, were the talk of congressional hearings and became the subject of international diplomacy.

By the end of the decade, billions of dollars had been returned to Holocaust survivors and their heirs. Ten years later, however, the problem remains unresolved.

Survivors received a measure of compensation for their loss and suffering, but some countries — like Russia — could be doing more, particularly by returning the vast collection of books and manuscripts of the late Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn.

At the end of June, experts met in Prague to discuss the continued restitution of Holocaust-era personal assets, cultural and religious objects, Jewish cemeteries and other objects. Delegations from around the world attended, and at the end of the conference a consensus document was issued concerning property.

The Terezin Declaration of June 30 stated, among other things, “We encourage and support efforts to identify and catalogue these items which may be found in archives, libraries, museums and other government and non-government repositories, to return them to their original rightful owners and other appropriate individuals or institutions according to national law, and to consider a voluntary international registration of Torah scrolls and other Judaica objects where appropriate.”

At the same time that delegates were meeting in Prague, representatives of the Russian government appeared in a U.S. court in Washington to argue for Russia’s holding onto some 381 religious transcripts, 12,000 books and 50,000 rare documents belonging to Schneersohn, the sixth leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, who was forced by the Soviets to flee in 1927 under threat of death.

Schneersohn took the documents to Latvia and later to Poland, but he was forced to leave them behind when the Nazis invaded and he fled to the United States. The collection was seized and taken to Germany, then recovered by the Red Army in 1945.

Russian representatives argued last month that Russia would not submit to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in the matter and that the United States should use diplomatic channels to resolve the dispute. The United States has already tried this channel.

In 1992, President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Robert Dole pressured the Russian Federation to return the contents of the library. At that time, all 100 members of the Senate wrote to then-President Boris Yeltsin urging the Russian leader to fulfill his promise to return the texts.

At one point, a single book was released to Gore. On a second occasion, seven volumes were given to Clinton during a visit to Moscow. But since then, nothing more has happened.

For what it’s worth, when in Moscow as the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, I asked the curator of the collection for permission to take at least one volume back as a goodwill gesture. My request was denied.

After diplomacy failed, Chabad-Lubavitch sued Russia in U.S. courts in 2004. The case goes on.

In Moscow in May 2007, I saw these books, which are held at the Russian State Library. The Schneersohn collection is part of a larger collection of some 50,000 Hebrew and Yiddish books. The Schneersohn books, for the most part, were kept neatly on shelves behind glass doors in a fire-controlled room. They are part of a closed collection that no one is interested in reading, the curator explained to me.

Interestingly, he commented on how touching it was when he saw Jewish children who had been brought there to see the collection. Apparently they were interested in the collection.

In the middle of the floor were nearly 40 cardboard boxes of books. On top of the open boxes, books were stacked in varying degrees of decomposition. Some lacked a binding; one Yiddish volume was dated Krakow, 1895. Outside the room was a card catalog with more than 100 drawers detailing the collection. I was told the archive used to have someone to help with the collection who spoke Hebrew and Yiddish — a former KGB man — but he was no longer around.

The Schneerson collection must be seen as the Russians see it: war booty.

Russia seems to have incorporated the collection “no one” was interested in reading into their “Jewish collections” and has housed it with many others that now form part of what I was told was the “Russian national heritage.”

If Russia can attend international gatherings like the Prague Conference and agree to its declarations, it should abide by them in deed.

The Schneersohn collection does not belong to Russia. It belongs to the Jews; specifically Chabad-Lubavitch. As the international community agreed in Prague, Russia should return the Schneersohn collection, just as every other country is expect to return their looted property.

(Gregg J. Rickman served as the first U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, from 2006 to 2009. He is a senior fellow for the study and combat of anti-Semitism at the Institute on Religion and Policy and a visiting fellow at the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism at Yale University.)

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