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Russia Returns Books to Lubavitch, but Will Group Get the Rest of Library?

December 19, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Lubavitch movement is celebrating the transfer of 16 religious books to a Lubavitch-run synagogue in Moscow.

But it is unclear when — and indeed, if — the balance of the thousands of books that make up the “Schneerson Library” will come into the fervently Orthodox group’s hands.

On Monday night, a group of Lubavitch Jews gathered in a downtown Moscow synagogue to welcome the 16 books that were returned to the movement from the Russian State Library, formerly known as the Lenin Library, where the collection has been held for the last 80 years.

A few years after the Russian Revolution, the books — estimates range from from 4,000 to 12,000 volumes — were seized from the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, as part of a crackdown on religion.

Excitement, singing and clapping filled the room as Rabbi Shlomo Kunin, who described the transfer as “the fulfillment of 80 years of imprisonment,” carried the pile of antique books into the Bronnaya synagogue’s main hall.

Long tables were put together and covered with talitot, or prayer shawls, before the books were laid out.

Kunin opened the front page of the thickest volume in the pile.

“It’s Gemarrah,” he announced, referring to a volume of Talmudic texts.

Another book turned out to be a 200-year-old prayer book of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Kunin recited his evening prayer over the newly found treasure.

The return of the books came after more than a decade of efforts.

Agudas Chasidei Chabad-Lubavitch, a group affiliated with the Lubavitch movement, was established in 1990 with the goal of achieving the release of the Schneerson collection.

It took three U.S. administrations, appeals by all 100 U.S. senators, heads of state from various nations and Jewish leaders from around the world “to get these 16 volumes,” said the Los Angeles-based Kunin, who has been spearheading the Lubavitch effort to get the books returned.

More directly, a gesture from the Bush administration apparently made the return possible.

At a ceremony in Moscow last Friday, the United States returned to Russia an archive of the Smolensk Regional Committee of the Communist Party.

At the end of World War II, the U.S. armed forces came into possession of the archive, captured by the Nazis when they occupied Russia during World War II.

One of the largest collections of Soviet-era documents in the West, the archive has been held for many years at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md.

Jewish leaders Ronald Lauder and Edgar Bronfman acted as conduits between the two governments in these gestures.

To show its appreciation for the gesture, Russia agreed to return part of the Schneerson library. A senior Russian State Library official in charge of the Schneerson collection told JTA that the library was asked “to expedite the return” of some books to Lubavitch when the U.S. indicated they were ready to give back the Smolensk archive.

“These books are now the property of Chabad,” said Meri Trifonenko, head of the Russian State Library’s Oriental Center, where the collection is stored.

Rabbi Berel Lazar, leader of the Lubavitch movement in the former Soviet Union and one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, confirmed that the books will be transferred to the library at Moscow’s Marina Roscha synagogue and community center, the movement’s main facility in Russia.

As part of the arrangement, the books must stay in Russia for the time being.

A decision on the matter by the Russian Ministry of Culture could allow the Lubavitch to bring the books back to Brooklyn, the group’s international headquarters.

However, it is unclear whether all parts of the Lubavitch movement want the books taken out of Russia.

With the 16 volumes returned this week, the count of books from the collection released by Russia this year is raised to 30. Fourteen books were returned earlier this year in two batches.

The State Library’s Trifonenko said no more books have been marked for transfer to Chabad in the near future.

She indicated that only those books from the Schneerson collection that have duplicates in the State Library’s main collection were transferred to Chabad.

“The library has the right to give away the books that exist in two or more copies” in its funds. “This is the maximum we can do,” she said.

Unlike other former Communist countries, Russia does not have legislation regulating the restitution of former private property, including cultural assets.

“It’s almost impossible” to return the entire collection “as it will create a precedent that would inevitably lead to numerous claims” from the Russian Orthodox Church, other faiths and private individuals whose assets were confiscated by the Soviet state and ended up in state-run cultural institutions, Trifonenko said.

Lubavitch officials say they hope that the Russians will follow up on this week’s development.

Kunin indicated that Chabad will continue with its time-tested practice of appealing to the U.S. leadership to press Russia on the matter.

“What is the next step? Do we come over to Condie Rice? Do we come over to Senator Lieberman? The bottom line is I’m confident” the return of the rest of the collection will happen, he said.

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