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While the Schneersohn Library is a collection of books amassed by the first five leaders of the Chabad movement, the Schneersohn Archive was amassed by one man: the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.
Schneersohn took over as rebbe following the death of his father, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, in 1920. Rather than fleeing the Soviet Union, Schneersohn stayed and built a network of underground yeshivas. He was arrested in 1927 and sentenced to death. Following an outcry in the West, Schneersohn was sent into exile. He lived in Latvia and then in Poland.
In 1940, Schneersohn fled to the United States and founded a new base for Chabad in Brooklyn. He brought with him many of his books and papers, but he left a substantial collection behind.
As the Nazis rolled across Europe, they seized documents from governments, nongovernmental organizations, and ethnic and religious communities. Jewish documents were of particular interest to Nazi researchers at the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, in Frankfurt, though they were also dispersed to other parts of the Reich.
As the tide of the war turned, the Red Army recaptured these documents and took them back to Moscow.
In addition to the Schneersohn Archive, the Red Army’s haul of Jewish-related war trophies included the archives of international Jewish organizations, such as files from the Paris offices of the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
These Jewish materials joined thousands of archives plundered by the Nazis from defeated state ministries and from other public, social and cultural organizations throughout Occupied Europe.
The so-called “Special Archive of the USSR” remained a secret until the late 1980s. Today it is part of the enormous collection that is housed in the Russian State Military Historical Archive, a frumpy, gray Stalinist building on the northwest edge of Moscow.
The archive is one of the largest in Europe, containing millions of “storage units.” Its largest holdings are documents related to the Soviet Army, from Russia’s 1917 civil war to the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991
One of the principal arguments Russian government officials give to explain why the Schneersohn Library — as distinct from the Schneersohn Archive — cannot be returned to the Aguch is because it was nationalized by the Bolsheviks, along with so much private property at that time. Putin said last year that returning the library would open a “Pandora’s Box” as other groups rush to reclaim their nationalized property, too.
But there is a precedent for the return of war trophies such as the Schneersohn Archive. The Soviet government began repatriating such archives, first to Soviet bloc countries, from the mid-1950s. Since 1991, the Russian State Military Historical Archive has also returned archives to Western countries. Negotiations, which are always carried out at intergovernmental level, have also included Jewish archives, which have been returned to Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.