Pressure is mounting in the United States for the Russian government to return a collection of books to the Chabad movement. A month after all 100 U.S. senators urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to release the “Schneerson Collection,” a congressional committee was slated Wednesday to explore the collection’s significance and the efforts to bring it to the United States.
“It is time for the Helsinki Commission to stop writing letters and have a hearing where the story can be told,” said Sean Woo, chief of staff of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and religious freedom around the world.
Even as U.S. lawmakers pay increasing attention to the issue, it is also causing some disagreement between Lubavitch leaders in the United States, who are pushing to have the books returned, and those in Russia, who don’t want to jeopardize their close relations with the Kremlin.
There’s obvious frustration among some Lubavitch leaders in the United States, who have garnered near unanimous support from American officials but have made only the slightest progress with the Russians. The hope is that increased publicity about the case will pressure the Putin government to release the collection.
“It is an opportunity to educate and to highlight this struggle and the history of these books in a way that has not been approached as yet,” said Rabbi Chanim Cunin, spokesman for the West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, which is leading the effort.
Cunin’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, was due to testify before the Helsinki Commission, along with a broad panel that includes actor Jon Voight, a Lubavitch supporter.
The Schneerson collection contains about 12,000 volumes seized from the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, as part of a crackdown on religion a few years after the Russian Revolution.
Thirty books were given to the Lubavitch movement in Russia in 2002 from the Russian State Library, formerly known as the Lenin Library, where the collection has been held for the past 80 years.
There was hope at the time that more of the books would be released. Despite assurances, however, the remaining volumes in the library have not been released.
Last November, the Lubavitch movement in California filed suit in a U.S. court against the Russian Federation, Russian Ministry of Culture and Mass Communication, the Russian State Library and the Russian State Military Archive.
A 1991 ruling by the Russian Supreme Court found that the collection was Chabad property, but Russian officials contend that the books are Russian property and will be taken overseas if they’re given to Chabad.
Chabad leaders indeed want to bring the collection to New York, where the books can be studied at Lubavitch headquarters. There was hope that the Putin government would hand them over, but these hopes have waned recently. As frustration has grown, the lobbying campaign has resumed.
The goal now is to retrieve the collection before Russia’s celebration in May of the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender in World War II. Cunin said the collection includes personal tales that document Soviet oppression of Schneerson and his followers, as well as Nazi atrocities in Poland.
An official with the Russian Ministry of Culture said he wasn’t aware of any plan to have the Schneerson books transferred to the Lubavitch movement in the United States.
“At present, this is not being discussed,” said the official, who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity. “There is no Russian law that would make such transfer legal. Should the government tell us to have the books transferred, we will have to obey. But I doubt this will ever happen.”
In September 2003 the Russian State Library opened a new Jewish book room, partly to make it easier for readers to use books from the Lubavitch collection.
Chabad-Lubavitch was outraged, saying Russia should not have opened the collection to the public until the books had been returned to Jewish control.
Lubavitch officials in Russia are divided over the issue.
Spearheading the effort to have the books returned to New York is Rabbi Yitzhak Kogan, a Moscow representative of Agudas Chasidei Chabad-Lubavitch of the Former Soviet Union. That group was appointed by the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with the goal of freeing the books.
But some Lubavitch leaders in Russia say the issue is more nuanced. The issue has put Rabbi Berel Lazar, the leading Chabad official in Russia and one of the country’s two chief rabbis — who is known for his good ties to the Kremlin — in an awkward situation.
Reluctant to irritate the Kremlin, Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia advocated transferring the books not to the United States but to the federation’s main facility in Moscow — a proposal that outraged the elder Cunin and his supporters.
A spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities told JTA that the question of justice in the case is not simple.
“The issue should be resolved in a lawful manner, in full accord with Russian legislation,” Boruch Gorin said. “And here is the main question: What would be considered lawful in this situation?”
Some insist Russia had no legal grounds to hold the books because Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson simply left them for temporary storage at a warehouse in Moscow when he left the Soviet Unioin decades ago.
These people argue that the collection was nationalized when Schneerson was living abroad, along with other books from the warehouse.
“If that was so, then the books should be returned,” Gorin said. But if the books were nationalized and taken from their original owners, then the issue should be resolved in a broader manner that deals with the entire problem of de-nationalization of seized property, he said.
In post-Communist years, Russia failed to adopt comprehensive legislation on the restitution of former private property, including cultural assets.
Officials with the state library and the Ministry of Culture have indicated that they would oppose an attempt to undo the nationalization of cultural assets. Numerous holdings in Russian libraries and museums were nationalized, and comprehensive legislation could lead to an avalanche of claims.
The U.S. Senate first called unanimously for the collection to be returned to Chabad in 1992, and successive American presidents raised the issue with Russian leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
President Bush reportedly raised the issue with Putin last month at a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also said, during her confirmation hearings in January, that she would “very much push” the Russian government to return the documents.
The issue has not garnered much attention among American Jewish groups, however.
Edward O’Donnell, the State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, was slated to address Wednesday’s hearing, along with leaders and attorneys for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and Leon Fuerth, who was national security adviser to former Vice President Al Gore.
Voigt is a strong supporter of the California Lubavitch community, and Cunin said the actor had been involved in the Schneerson collection effort since 1991.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States was invited to participate, but was not expected to attend.
(JTA correspondent Lev Krichevsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.