Lubavitchers fight Russia for Schneersohn documents

moscow  |  It was late 1939, and Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn was stranded in war-torn Poland.

Germany had invaded. Warsaw was being bombed. There seemed little hope for Schneersohn, the venerated sixth leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, or his family and followers.

Nor, too, for his valuable collection of historical and religious documents: lectures on Torah portions, treatises on Jewish practices, manuscripts and copies of correspondence, including recollections of how Lubavitch had provided Russian soldiers with kosher-for-Passover food.

Schneersohn, the father-in-law of the seventh and last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, eventually would escape to New York. But the collection was left behind; it fell into German and later Soviet hands.

Now these documents, and another set that was lost at the time of the Russian Revolution, are the subject of a U.S. lawsuit.

To recover them, Lubavitch is pursuing a case against Russia, which inherited the collection after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lawyers for Lubavitch say that Russians have offered some items for sale on the black market.

In the latest turn in the saga, Russia told the Washington court handling the case that it has no jurisdiction in the matter.

The documents “are much more than just intellectual property,” said Eliezer Zaklikovsky, who co-authored a history of Schneersohn’s escape from Europe. “They have great spiritual significance for the movement as well. They’re like a soul, you might say, to the books and manuscripts, and it’s in exile.”

Officials at the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow, where the documents left in Poland are stored, say they aren’t very attached to them but that a lawsuit is the wrong way to determine ownership.

Wjta chabad

A portion of the 12,000 religious texts and 25,000 handwritten pages that Chabad-Lubavitch wants returned from Russia.

Russian archives hold a treasure trove of materials that the Red Army seized as it traversed Eastern Europe and conquered Berlin. They range from Reich Chancellery and Gestapo documents to Auschwitz construction records. Some have been returned, but the Schneersohn papers remain in Russian state hands.

Schneersohn was born in Lyubavichi, Russia, the home of the Lubavitch movement. When World War II broke out, he was living in Poland, and what followed, researchers say, was an atypical intervention by the Germans that saved his life.

But amid the dislocations of war, Schneersohn’s documents were left behind. The Germans stored them, and the Soviet army eventually captured them and took them to Moscow.

Legal efforts to secure the return of the documents in Russia began in 2004.

Marshall Grossman, a lawyer for Lubavitch, said an international police investigation was launched after documents from the archive reportedly were put up for sale on the black market, mostly in Israel. The director of the Russian archive, Vladimir Kuzelenkov, denies the allegation.

In principle, the archive is not opposed to giving Lubavitch the collection, Kuzelenkov said. But the archive will only consider claims made according to the terms of a 1998 Russian law that provides for the nationalization and occasional restitution of documents; the archive will not respond to a U.S. lawsuit. Another key element, he said, would be compensation for the money the archive has spent preserving the materials.

In the same suit, Lubavitch lawyers also are seeking the return of a separate collection of 12,000 books held in a Moscow state library. According to Lubavitch, the fifth rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, had stored them in a Moscow warehouse and they were seized by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution.