During the 1990s, the world was seized with stories of Nazi plunder and heirless property. Stolen bank accounts, looted artwork, confiscated real estate, and payments for slave labor were front-page headlines, the talk of Congressional hearings, and 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, the problem however, remains unresolved. Survivors received a measure of compensation for their loss and suffering, but some countries, like Russia, could have done more particularly by returning the vast collection of books and manuscripts of Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn. In late June, the international community 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, 2009 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 very the same time delegates were meeting in Prague, representatives of the Russian government appeared in a U.S. court in Washington, D.C. to argue for its continued retention of some 381 spiritual transcripts, 12,000 books and 50,000 rare documents belonging to the late Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, a leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the world’s largest Hasidic movements, who was forced by the Soviets to flee in 1927 under threat of death. Rabbi Schneersohn took the documents to Latvia and later Poland, but was forced to leave them behind when the Nazis invaded, forcing him to flee to the United States. The collection was seized and taken to Germany, then recovered by the Red Army in 1945. After first litigating for years its right to retain the collection, Russian representatives suddenly declared in court that it would no longer submit to the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts and that the United States should use diplomatic channels to resolve the dispute.
What is interesting is that this is precisely what the United States has done for years, use diplomatic channels. In 1992, President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and then-Senator Robert Dole (R-Kan.) all 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 Vice President Gore. On a second occasion, seven volumes were given to President Bill Clinton in the course of a visit to Moscow. 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 personally asked the curator of the collection for permission to take at least one volume back as a good-will gesture. Needless to say, I was rejected.
When diplomacy failed, Chabad-Lubavitch sued Russia in U.S. courts in 2004 and the case still proceeds despite Russia’s walkout.
When 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. Schneersohn books, when I saw them, were for the most part neatly shelved behind glass doors in a fire-controlled room and are part of a closed collection. Why “closed?” The curator explained that no one was interested in reading them.
Interestingly though, he commented on how touching it was when he saw Jewish children who had been brought there to see the collection. They apparently were interested in the collection.
In the middle of the floor there were close to forty cardboard boxes of books. Stacked atop these open boxes were books in varying degrees of condition. Some lacked a binding and one I saw, in Yiddish, dated to Krakow in 1895. Outside the room, a card catalog contained more than one hundred drawers detailing the collection. It was explained to me that they used to have a person who spoke Hebrew and Yiddish to help with the collection, a former KGB man, but he no longer did so.
The Schneerson collection must be seen as the Russians see it: war booty. They seem to have incorporated the collection “no one was interested in reading” into their “Jewish collections” and have 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 more than word but in deed. The Schneersohn collection does not belong to Russia, it belongs to the Jews, and specifically the Chabad-Lubavitch. As the international community agreed in Prague, Russia should return the Schneersohn collection just as every other country is expected to return their looted property.
Gregg J. Rickman served as the first U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism from 2006-2009. 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.