By COLlive reporter
Photos by Meir Alfasi
Russia’s powerful President Vladimir Putin came Thursday to the Museum of Jewish History in Russia, located in Moscow and which he personally helped build by donating a month’s salary.
This visit had another purpose, as he has already toured and seen the $50 million state-of-the-art complex in the past.
With a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and 2 large bouquets of flowers behind him, and a group of black hatted Chabad rabbis seated in front of him, Putin announced that Russia will be transferring a collection of historic Jewish books and manuscripts to the museum.
Otherwise known as the “Schneerson Archive,” the library belonged to the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson and was nationalized by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and ended up in the Russian State Library. A second part fell into the hands of the Nazis, and later seized by the Red Army and handed over to the Russian State Military Archive.
At the request of his successor, the Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Lubavitchers have sought the restitution of the library since the late 1980s. President Boris Yeltsin promised James Baker, Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, that the holy documents would be returned.
Refusing to do so since, Putin has insisted the books “belong to Russia” and instead proposed the library be transferred to the museum in Moscow. Businessman and writer Sergei L. Ustinov is cited on its website as its founder and director.
Putin said Thursday: “I hope transferring the Schneerson collection, which undoubtedly not only presents an interest, but is also of great value to Jewish people, and not only Jews living in Russia, but also Jews who live in other countries, to the Jewish Museum and the Moscow Tolerance Center for storage purposes, will put an end to this problem.”
According to the Interfax news agency, the president said any person visiting the center, regardless of his place of residence, can “study and hold in his hands these books and get from them the knowledge that modern people need so much.”
RABBI KOGAN’S SUPPORT
The idea was rejected by lawyers representing the group appointed by the Rebbe to handle the issue on behalf of Chabad – Rabbi Yitzchak Kogan of Russia, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin of California, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Aharonov of Israel and Rabbi Sholom Ber Levin of New York.
They said the lawful home of the books are at the Agudas Chassidei Chabad Library, the official archive of the Chabad Lubavitch movement located adjutant to Lubavitch Headquarters – 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY.
But seated in the crowd at the press conference, in addition to many Shluchim serving in Russia, was the same Rabbi Kogan, the “Leningrad Tzadik” and leader of the Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue in Moscow.
Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, who is the Head Shliach of Chabad in the country and who enjoys Putin’s support, spoke following Putin and called the decision a wise one, saying it was “a big day” for Jewish people.
“Rabbi Yitzchok Kogan, who is seated here with us, deals with this issue every day. He made a great effort that the books be returned to Jewish hands,” Rabbi Lazar said. “For him this is a very, very important issue.”
Addressing Putin, Rabbi Lazar said: “Today you have made an important step that I would even call a heroic deed. We would call it as ‘Solomon’s decision’.”
Looking at the photo of the Rebbe, Rabbi Lazar said: “We remember the words of our Rebbe, who said there will come a day when these books will be returned to the Jewish people.”
Also addressing the press conference was the Russian-born Rabbi Alexander Boroda, Chairman of the Board of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR) who has close ties to the Kremlin.