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

It takes less than 10 minutes, a passport and the help of a friendly librarian to hold in your hands one of thousands of religious texts at the heart of an international legal battle between Russia and America.

That’s what I found when I traveled in January to Moscow, where I came face to face with dozens of fragile, beautifully illustrated books, some with intricate notes handwritten in Hebrew around the text.

I had come to test a compromise that President Vladimir Putin offered last year to solve a decades-long dispute between the Russian government and American leaders of the large Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement based in New York.

The two sides have argued for decades over a library and an archive, known collectively as the Schneersohn Collection, assembled by the early rabbinic leaders of Chabad.

In recent years, the dispute has spilled over into secular American life. It has worsened America’s already strained diplomatic relations with Russia, triggered an art-lending freeze between major Russian and American museums, and, most recently, led to a lawsuit filed by Russia’s Ministry of Culture in a Moscow court against the Library of Congress.

While the fight over the Schneersohn Collection seems intractable from New York, in Moscow the path toward a resolution appears to be in sight.

The Schneersohn Library, which was nationalized by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution, has spent most of the past century at the Russian State Library, formerly known as the Lenin Library, in Moscow.

Chabad’s leaders have insisted for more than 20 years that the books be returned to their world headquarters in Brooklyn.

Then, last February, Putin suggested a third way: The Schneersohn books would leave the Russian State Library. But instead of disappearing overseas, they would be moved to Moscow’s new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, a $50 million Chabad-controlled institution that was partly bankrolled by Russian oligarchs. The first delivery of several hundred books arrived at the museum last June.

Compromising Position: Russia?s President Vladimir Putin crosses himself at a 2013 ceremony marking the handover of the Schneersohn library in Moscow. Image by Getty Images

I arrived at the museum one Monday at lunchtime. The hangarlike space, originally built as a bus garage, was designed in the 1920s by the architect Konstantin Melnikov. The first thing that greets visitors once they are through the airport-style security is the outer shell of a hulking, state-of-the-art movie theater. Beyond are glowing touchscreen interactive displays and a giant, curved screen showing a documentary about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.

Out of sight, to the side of the exhibition space, past the kosher restaurant and the gift shop, is a modern, airy room with computer terminals, several display cabinets filled with open books and a librarian seated behind a desk.

Because the Russian state would not technically give up the Schneersohn books, officials found an interesting workaround: The door to the research center at the Jewish museum informs visitors that they are entering a department of the Russian State Library.

“Which books would you like to see?” Victoria Novikova, a librarian of the Russian State Library, asks me.

The question is surprising not just because access to these books seems so easy but because this level of official service in Russia, outside of Western-owned businesses, is practically unheard of. Before I even have a chance to apply for a library card, Novikova springs from her chair. She moves toward one of the display cases that contain the most popular of the Schneersohn books.

“A lot of people just want to come and touch and kiss the books,” Novikova tells me as she lifts the glass cover from the cabinet.

The Schneersohn Library covers 300 years of Jewish publishing amassed by the first five leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. It ranges from a 16th-century Shulchan Aruch, published in Krakow, to a 19th-century collection of responsa and commentary by the third Lubavitcher rebbe, published in Vilna. The library includes 17th century editions of the Babylonian Talmud; an 18th century Haggadah; numerous commentaries on the Torah, the Talmud, the Mishnah and the Zohar, and books on Hebrew grammar.

One of the most popular books, Novikova points out, is a 1900 copy of “Tanya,” a central text of Chabad Hasidism. She lifts the book out of the case and shows me a square, salmon-colored bookplate indicating that its owner was the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe. It’s tangible links like these to previous rebbes that devout visitors come to see and touch and kiss.

After Novikova’s tour of the four display cabinets, I step out of the museum and walk around the corner to the offices of Boruch Gorin.

Like many leading Chabad Hasidim in the former Soviet Union, Gorin is a man with many responsibilities. He is a co-founder of the Federation of Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of Chabad in the former Soviet Union, and publisher of the Russian Jewish magazine L’Chaim and of Knizhniki, a publishing house dedicated to Jewish books.

Gorin is also chairman of the board of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, and the director in Moscow of the “Schneersohn Library.” (Though it is spelled “Schneerson” on the Jewish Museum website, in line with the spelling of the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.)

Gorin said that before the Schneersohn Library moved to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center it was “a phantom.” The books had never been cataloged, and the Russian State Library was in no hurry to do so. “The Lenin Library has 40 million books,” Gorin said, still referring to the state library by its old name. “This collection was one of their thousands of problems that had to be solved. For us it is the only problem.”

So far, about 2,000 of the estimated 4,000 Schneersohn books have been transferred to the Jewish Museum. They arrive in batches after being scanned. Once they arrive at the museum, they are cataloged by Gorin’s staff.

Gorin said that the Schneersohn Library has six members on staff, three paid by the Russian State Library and three paid by the Schneersohn Library. Once all 4,000 books have been delivered, Gorin says, he will need to employ more people to analyze the handwritten notes that adorn the inside of many of the books.

Although Putin’s compromise was welcomed in Moscow, it has failed to mollify Chabad in New York.

In 2010, Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement, won a lawsuit seeking the return of the Schneersohn Library and a separate collection known as the Schneersohn Archive in U.S. District Court.

In January 2013, Royce Lamberth, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, imposed a $50,000-a-day fine on the Russian government for each day that it does not return the collection.

The Russian government has said that it does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction. But the Aguch, as Agudas Chasidei Chabad is known, is pressing on. The group recently filed a motion for an interim judgment of $14.7 million to pressure the Russian government to comply with the ruling.

“Russia’s deposit of a fraction of the volumes from the Schneerson Library into a branch of the government-controlled Russian State Library at the Jewish Museum in Moscow does not remedy Russia’s unilateral seizure, retention and claimed ownership of these sacred books,” Nathan Lewin, a lawyer for the Aguch, said in a statement to the Forward.

“Russia’s placement of the books at the museum is analogous to one who looted Jewish owned art during the Holocaust claiming that placing the artwork in a museum, where the original owner and his/her descendants may view the art, should be satisfactory, as opposed to returning the art to its rightful owner.”

Lewin’s daughter, Alyza Lewin, who also represents the Aguch, said that the group could seize Russian property in America under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act if the Russian government does not return the Schneersohn materials or pay up.

Alyza Lewin added that the Aguch would not try to seize artworks, as Russia has claimed. “Artwork is protected by statute,” she said. “That was a red herring raised by the Russian Federation to distract from the fact that it was refusing to return property it had stolen.”

Nevertheless, major Russian museums continue to refuse to loan artworks to American museums, and American museums have likewise stopped lending artworks to Russia. A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, told the Forward, “The situation with loans has not changed from or to Russia since 2011.”

Gorin says the Federation of Jewish Communities does not dispute that the books belong to the Aguch in New York. But he disagrees with the American group’s aggressive tactics. “You can’t ruin the world for the battle of justice,” Gorin says. “Compromise is the way of the human being.”

Gorin says that the Aguch’s strategy risks souring relations between the Russian-Jewish community and the Kremlin. Perhaps more important for the Aguch, Gorin says it threatens Chabad’s chances of securing the separate second half of the Schneersohn Collection — the Schneersohn Archive — which stands a far greater chance than the Schneersohn Library of one day being repatriated to New York.

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.

During my week in Moscow, I tried in vain to meet with the Russian State Military History Archive’s director, Vladimir Kuzelenkov or to get permission to visit the archive. Mark Kupovetsky, a Jewish studies specialist at the Russian State University for the Humanities, said that if I had given a month’s notice, I might have had more luck. “People who apply to visit the archives are generally not turned down,” he said.

Kupovetsky should know. He is a co-editor of Nazi-Looted Jewish Archives in Moscow, a guide to the Jewish collections at the Russian State Military History Archive. Kupovetsky and his co-editor, David Fishman, a Russia expert at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, spent several years overseeing a group of eight graduate students who went through the Jewish archives, researching the documents written in an array of languages, including Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek, Serbo-Croat and Ladino.

In many cases, the archives had barely been cataloged because Soviet-era archivists could not read the source languages. Kupovetsky said he found it difficult to handle many of the documents because they were all that was left of “disappeared Jewish communities.”

Kuzelenkov, who was also a co-editor of the Jewish guide to the archives, did not answer any questions I put to him via email about the Jewish collection or whether the Schneersohn Archive might one day be sent to New York. Kupovetsky said he was happy for the archive to stay where it is. “If I am dealing with the state, I know the rules of the game,” he said. “There is a law, and they have to give it to me.” As a researcher, Kupovetsky said he was worried that Chabad-Lubavitch might be more guarded about access.

Kupovetsky’s assertion aside, the contrast between the difficulty I faced viewing the government-controlled Schneersohn Archive and the ease with which the Schneersohn Library opened up for me could not have been starker.

One day after my visit to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, I returned to see how easy it would be to check out Schneersohn Library books from the Russian State Library.

Novikova, the librarian, was there again. She helped me fill out an application form. A quick photo session later, I was the proud owner of a reading ticket — No. 100000647624 — for the Russian State Library.

Novikova took me upstairs to another room, where I could check out as many books as I liked. She showed me the online catalog and directed me to some of the more interesting texts, such as the works of the famous kabbalist Chaim Vital and an 18th-century Haggadah with a beautiful map depicting the Exodus.

As Novikova explained, I did not even need to travel 4,500 miles to Moscow from New York. Most of the books have been scanned and are available to anyone around the world as part of the Russian State Library’s online catalog.

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 [email protected] or on Twitter, @pdberger

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