What I Found in Library Rebbe Schneerson Claimed as His — and Why Chabad Feud Rages

Hasidic Trove on Display in Moscow as Court Fight Continues

Our Man in Moscow: Paul Berger flashes the card that gave him access to the Schneersohn archive at a new Moscow Jewish  museum.
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Our Man in Moscow: Paul Berger flashes the card that gave him access to the Schneersohn archive at a new Moscow Jewish museum.

By Paul Berger

Published February 18, 2014, issue of February 21, 2014.
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When I returned to New York, I called Rabbi Berel Levine, chief librarian at Chabad’s New York headquarters.

If the books ever return to America, it will be to Levine’s library. I asked Levine if he knew that the books were available online. He said that he did not. Later, I emailed Levine with instructions for how to navigate the library’s Russian-language website. Levine thanked me, but he declined to answer any questions about what it meant to him to be able to see the books from New York.

Accessibility will never sway the Aguch. The last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, tasked a group of rabbis — including Levine — with the mission of restituting the Schneersohn Library and Archive from Russia. Gorin says that these rabbis don’t have the authority to accept Putin’s compromise. “They were never told by the Lubavitcher rebbe they can get half a way or a quarter of the way,” Gorin said.

It is obvious that, from his perch in Moscow, Gorin sees the outlines of a settlement. The Schneersohn Library remains under Chabad’s care at the Jewish Museum, while the Schneersohn Archive returns to the United States.

It is obvious, too, not only that the Aguch would never accept such terms, but also that Putin’s Russia is unlikely to offer to return the archive as long as it is being threatened with court action.

Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, a historian who has followed the saga for almost 20 years and who recently wrote an extensive article on the subject for a British journal, Art, Antiquity and Law, said the only way Russia might restitute the archive is if the Aguch withdraws its lawsuit and turns to “quiet diplomacy.”

Grimsted said the Russians might release the archive, but only “on the basis of a formal diplomatic claim that follows established claim procedures used by other countries that have successfully recovered” Nazi-looted archives.

For now, Russia has responded to the American court’s decision by suing the Library of Congress for seven books from the Schneersohn Library that were loaned to the Library of Congress during the 1990s and that the Library of Congress passed on to the Aguch. Chabad’s librarian, Levine, declined to answer questions about these books. And the U.S. Department of Justice, which is a defendant in the suit, did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the Aguch continues its fight in the courts.

Nathan Lewin said via email: “Chabad’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, directed repeatedly that the entire Schneerson collection be restored to Chabad at its worldwide headquarters in New York and not remain in Russia. Only the return of the complete library and the archives will satisfy Chabad’s religious needs, resolve Russia’s ongoing violation of international law and meet the terms of the U.S. district court’s judgment.”

Russia, an immovable object, has met an unstoppable force, Chabad. No one knows how this story will end.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdberger

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