Jewish Group May Sue for Seized Writing

The Washington Post 4 December 2006
Matt Apuzzo (AP)

WASHINGTON -- Members of a Hasidic Jewish movement may sue the Russian government in an effort to recover 18th century religious writings and prayers seized by the Nazi and Soviet armies, a U.S. judge said Monday.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said the case involves violations of international law that can be argued in a Washington courtroom. He dismissed a part of the lawsuit, however, involving a dispute over a library of religious books abandoned when the group's leader fled Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution.

The plaintiffs are members of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic Jewish movement that follows the teachings of generations of Eastern European rabbis and emphasizes the study of the Torah. The group is suing Russia to recover thousands of manuscripts, prayers, lectures and philosophical discourses by leading rabbis.

Those documents _ described in court testimony as "the crown jewels" of the movement _ were taken to Latvia and later Poland after Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn fled Russia in 1927. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Schneersohn fled to the United States, leaving behind the archives and manuscripts, which were seized and taken to Germany.

The Soviet Army recovered the documents in 1945 and returned them to Russia, where they are being held in the Russia State Military Archives.

Both the Nazi seizure and the Russian government's appropriation of the archives violated international law, Lamberth wrote, so the case can continue in a U.S. court.

"It's a complete victory for us. We're absolutely delighted," said attorney Marshall B. Grossman, who represents the Jewish group.

Lamberth said he had no jurisdiction to settle a dispute over a library of texts left behind when Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer fled Russia in 1915. Because it involved a Russian dispute and not a violation of international law, it could not be settled in the U.S., Lamberth said.

"Clearly the library is very important to Russians," said attorney James Henry Broderick Jr., who represents the Russian government in the case. "They've set up a facility for it and they're trying to afford it the dignity it deserves."

Broderick said he was reviewing Lamberth's opinion and did not know how the Russian government would proceed regarding the archives. Grossman said he would push for trial as soon as possible.

Alexey Timofeev, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington, said the government was pleased with the ruling, but would continue to study it before discussing the judge's decision regarding the archives.
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