MOSCOW (JTA) — It was late 1939, and Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn was stranded in war-torn Poland.
Germany had invaded. Warsaw was being bombed. There seemed little hope for Schneersohn, the venerated sixth leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, or his family and followers.
Nor, too, for his valuable collection of historical and religious documents: lectures on Torah portions, treatises on Jewish practices, manuscripts and copies of correspondence, including recollections of how Lubavitch had provided Russian soldiers with kosher-for-Passover food.
Schneersohn, the father-in-law of the seventh and last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, eventually would escape to New York after an unusual back-and-forth between German officials, the U.S. State Department and Jewish leaders. But the collection was left behind; it fell into German and later Soviet hands.
Now these documents, and another set that was lost at the time of the Russian Revolution, are the subject of a U.S. lawsuit.
To recover them, Lubavitch is pursuing a case against Russia, which inherited the collection after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lawyers for Lubavitch say that Russians have offered some items for sale on the black market.
In the latest turn in the saga, Russia told the Washington court handling the case that it has no jurisdiction in the matter.
The documents “are much more than just intellectual property,” said Eliezer Zaklikovsky, who co-authored a history of Schneersohn’s escape from Europe. “They have great spiritual significance for the movement as well. There’s like a soul, you might say, to the books and manuscripts, and it’s in exile.”
Officials at the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow, where the documents left in Poland are stored, say they aren’t very attached to them but that a lawsuit is the wrong way to determine ownership.
Russian archives hold a treasure trove of materials that the Red Army seized as it traversed Eastern Europe and conquered Berlin. They range from Reich Chancellery and Gestapo documents to Auschwitz construction records.
The Soviets plundered records that the Nazis had looted from occupied nations, such as archives from destroyed Jewish communities. Some have been returned, including records from the French Ministry of War and the British Expeditionary Forces. The Schneersohn papers, however, remain in Russian state hands.
Schneersohn was born in Lyubavichi, Russia, the home of the Lubavitch movement. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Schneersohn defied persecution by the atheistic Communist government to continue his outreach work, and in 1927 he was arrested.
According to Lubavitch officials, Schneersohn was sentenced to death but his sentence was commuted after international protests, and he was expelled from the Soviet Union. Some scholars say Schneersohn was never sentenced to death and that he decided to leave on his own to avoid another arrest.
When World War II broke out, Schneersohn was living in Poland. What followed, researchers say, was an atypical intervention by the Germans that saved his life.
German authorities — most notably Wilhelm Canaris, head of the German military intelligence service — were persuaded to help Schneersohn leave Warsaw after a flurry of letters and telegrams from and phone calls with Jewish leaders and U.S. officials, according to Zaklikovsky, although their motives have never fully be explained.
First they had to find Schneersohn — no easy task, as local Jews feared the invaders. The Germans deployed a half-Jewish officer, Ernst Bloch, who spoke Yiddish.
“They basically went searching for the rebbe in Warsaw,” Zaklikovsky said. “Wherever they went, nobody would answer the door, as they were afraid. Even when they finally reached the house where the rebbe and his family were, they didn’t want to let them in.”
After negotiations, Schneersohn was evacuated to Berlin, and then on to Riga, Stockholm and finally New York, where he arrived in early 1940.
Amid the dislocations of war, Schneersohn’s documents were left behind. Rather than destroying them, the Germans stored them.
“They were interested in Jewish archives, masonic archives, socialist archives, certain key archives of what they called the ‘enemies of the Reich,’ ” said Patricia Grimsted, a Harvard University expert on Russian archives. “I should think they should have been interested [in Schneersohn’s files] because he was forced to leave the Soviet Union; it was a very contested case in the ’20s.”
The Soviet army eventually captured the documents and took them to Moscow. Some books and manuscripts had been left in Poland. With the help of the U.S. State Department and an introduction by businessman Edward Piszek, the Polish authorities returned six crates of material to Lubavitch in 1977, said Abraham Shemtov, currently head of the Lubavitch umbrella organization Agudas Chasidei Chabad and one of the key figures in arranging the transfer.
Legal efforts to secure the return of the documents in Russia began in 2004.
Shemtov said he could not comment on why the case was brought in the United States rather than Russia because legal proceedings are ongoing.
Since the case was brought, the director of the Russian archive, Vladimir Kuzelenkov, has locked away the documents as a precaution, and researchers have not had access to them. Recently, however, Kuzelenkov granted access to JTA.
Walking through the sterile corridors of the Russian State Military Archive to a shadowy room where thousands of boxes sit on shelves, Kuzelenkov took a brown box and opened it to reveal a handful of folders. Inside were yellowing sheaves of typewritten Hebrew texts and official documents in elegant German and Russian script. The papers rustled in the quiet air.
“You can’t say we look after them badly, can you?” Kuzelenkov said.
Marshall Grossman, a lawyer for Lubavitch, said an international police investigation was launched after documents from the archive reportedly were put up for sale on the black market, mostly in Israel. He declined to provide details.
Kuzelenkov denies the allegation.
“The essence of my life is preserving these things,” he said. “We wouldn’t call someone who sold them a thief; we’d call them a traitor.”
In principle, the archive is not opposed to giving Lubavitch the collection, Kuzelenkov said. But the archive will only consider claims made according to the terms of a 1998 Russian law that provides for the nationalization and occasional restitution of documents; the archive will not respond to a U.S. lawsuit. Another key element, he said, would be compensation for the money the archive has spent preserving the materials.
Grossman said Russia would be unlikely to be receptive to a claim based on the 1998 law.
In the same suit, Lubavitch lawyers also are seeking the return of a separate collection of 12,000 books held in a Moscow state library. According to Lubavitch, the fifth rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, had stored them in a Moscow warehouse and they were seized by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution. Their status was first contested in the early 1990s, when a Soviet court ruled that they were the property of Lubavitch. But a later decision nullified the ruling.
The head of Lubavitch in Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar, said he favors a diplomatic solution to securing the return of the collections.
“We personally feel that finding diplomatic avenues is probably more efficient to convince the Russians,” he said.
For now, Schneersohn’s documents remain in limbo.