Search for rare siddur pits woman against museum

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For Lesser, however, the siddur is more than a religious and cultural artifact; it's a link to her dwindling personal legacy. Decades after her family fled Frankfurt, little remains of their former world. The Boerneplatz synagogue is gone, replaced by a parking lot. All that is left of their home is the address, No. 37.

The siddur holds cherished childhood memories for Lesser of her father's dedication to Jewish values and the rich religious life of the community. It also embodies his love of and devotion to his wife and family.

"In 1920, my mother was very ill with the Asian flu," Lesser, now 78, recalls. "When she recovered, my father wanted to express his gratitude. He ordered a beautiful illustrated siddur, hand-written on parchment. The cover was made of silver and it had the symbols of the 12 tribes engraved on it, with the burning bush in the middle. The prayers on the pages were all decorated with colorful pictures."

Her father, Jacob Rothschild, presented the siddur to the Boerneplatz Synagogue, where he was a gabbai (synagogue elder) for many years. "The chazzan (cantor) of the synagogue read out from this Siddur every Shabbat and on weddings," Lesser says.

Rothschild, no relation to the baron or the lord, was a successful textile manufacturer. He was one of two people among Frankfurt's population of 30,000 Jews to earn the honored title "Chaver" in recognition of his generosity and work for the Jewish community. A dedicated supporter of Rabbi Ya'acov Hoffmann's yeshiva, he and his wife gave unstinting aid to streams of refugees from pogroms in Russia and Poland who landed on their doorstep.

The grand Boerneplatz Synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht, in November 1938. But it was learned much later that some religious articles had been saved, by two non-Jewish custodians at the nearby Jewish school, the Philantropin, which also served as a community center. Anticipating the fate of the synagogue, the custodians managed to sneak many Jewish religious items out, hid them in the school basement and threw away the key. The treasure was discovered about 25 years ago, when the school was inspected before it was to be sold.

The Rothschild family managed to get out of Frankfurt individually, and was reunited in England. Lesser made her way to the United States, where she married and later divorced. She emigrated to Israel in 1961 and now lives in Rehovot.

In 1985, upon hearing that a Jewish museum was to be opened in Frankfurt, Lesser wrote a letter to the Jewish community, asking if anyone knew of the whereabouts of the Rothschild siddur. She enclosed a copy of the dedication page, which her father had kept.

Within two weeks, she received an affirmative reply. The siddur was at the Frankfurt Historical Museum and would soon be on display in the new Jewish Museum.

Overjoyed to hear that the siddur had not been destroyed, Lesser wrote a letter to the director of the Frankfurt Historical Museum asking how she could bring it to Israel. The reply was heartbreaking but unequivocal: "You cannot get the book at all," she was told. "It belongs to Frankfurt."

She could not believe that, possessing some proof of her family's link to the siddur, she would be refused its return. She decided to pursue her quest in person. So, in March 1986, 50 years after leaving Frankfurt, Lesser returned.

"It was with great trepidation," she says. "I never wanted to go back to Germany, but I had to go to see if I could reclaim the siddur."

She found the siddur on display in the Frankfurt Historical Museum.

"They showed me the siddur and I took it in my arms and I cried and cried, thinking how my father, with so much love, had had this book made. I sat there with the siddur in my arms and pleaded with the gentleman to let me have the siddur and take it back with me to Israel," she recalls.

But she got the same uncompromising reply: No. Lesser's pleas and her summary of the siddur's history were to no avail.

Wherever Lesser turned–to the cultural director of Frankfurt, to the head of the Jewish community, to the head of the unfinished Jewish Museum–she received negative responses. Only the mayor seemed "genuinely sympathetic," and said he would try to do his best, she says. But he proved of no help, either.

Two weeks before the trip, Lesser had placed ads in five Frankfurt newspapers, stating that she was coming to try to get the rare siddur and asking anyone who knew her parents to contact her. One person answered the advertisement, a non-Jewish woman who used to work in the family business. She called to say she was grateful for the generous pension Mr. Rothschild had arranged.

The press proved more responsive.

"A week after I arrived, all of the newspapers called to ask if I was successful," she says. "Two came to interview me in my pension. But then I decided not to give them a story. I could not say anything that would reflect negatively on the Jewish community."

Seventeen days after arriving, Lesser returned to Israel.

On the surface, it would seem that Lesser's case is clear, but legally it is murkier. Although Germany signed the Hague Convention forbidding pilferage in time of war, the notion of "finders, keepers" often prevails.

A letter from the Frankfurt City Archives dated May 21, 1986 states that the siddur is "on loan" from the Frankfurt Historical Museum to the Jewish museum. This implies that the city does not recognize it as a Jewish property, but as the property of the municipality.

A more recent letter of April 6, 1995, from the Beit Din of Munich, seems to accept this status, saying: "We cannot call a non-Jew to a Beit Din."

Despite the seeming legal obstacles, Lesser persevered, hiring a German law firm in Frankfurt to help wage her battle.

A proposal by the Frankfurt Jewish Museum, meanwhile, was rejected by Lesser. The museum said the siddur could be put on exhibition at Bar-Ilan University for a year, on the condition that she sign a statement renouncing all further rights to it.

"How could they expect me to surrender the siddur that has so many memories for me, that my father had had made with so much love for my mother?" she asks.

The commemoration page of the siddur states that the prayerbook was a gift to the Boerneplatz Synagogue, intended for religious rites of its members. That in mind, Jewish law does have restrictions governing gifts to synagogues. In a ruling on the case, Rabbi Simcha Hakohen Kook, chief rabbi of Rehovot and head of the Beit Din, says that Lesser does not have a personal right to the siddur. But she does have the right to demand that it be given by the Frankfurt museum to any synagogue that she designates, including one in Israel.

"To leave the prayer book in the hands of the Germans would be a fulfillment of the verse in Kings I, (19, 21): `Hast thou murdered and taken possession?"' Kook ruled.

Meantime, other avenues are being pursued. Ben-Zion Eliash, an attorney who handles Jewish property claims in Germany, recently opened the door to a solution, suggesting that the siddur could be exchanged for another item of equal value held by a museum in Israel.

If the Rothschild siddur were here, it would be accessible to the family, for whom the siddur has an emotional and spiritual value far beyond any historic value. It would also be accessible to members of the original Frankfurt community, many of whom live here and remember Lesser's father.

Jacob Rothschild's daughter feels duty-bound to act according to what she sees as her father's wishes.

"My father loved Eretz Yisrael. In 1933, he came to see about settling here. The siddur belongs in Israel, where my father would have wanted it to be."