The documents are at the center of a lawsuit brought by members of Chabad-Lubavitch, which follows the teachings of Eastern European rabbis and emphasizes the study of the Torah. The group is suing Russia in U.S. court to recover thousands of manuscripts, prayers, lectures and philosophical discourses by leading rabbis dating back to the 18th century.
The case is being handled by the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, Royce Lamberth, who in January ordered Russia to preserve the documents over Chabad’s fears they are not being properly cared for and could be sold on the black market.
But Russia said in its filing Friday that even though it respects the U.S. court, it would not participate in the litigation to protect its sovereignty. Russia said the United States should use diplomatic channels to address any concerns it has about the collection and that Chabad can pursue claims in Russian courts.
“This court has no authority to enter orders with respect to the property owned by the Russian Federation and in its possession, and the Russian Federation will not consider any such orders to be binding on it,” said the Russian filing.
Lamberth agreed to take the case in U.S. court because he said both the Nazi seizure and the Russian government’s appropriation of the collection, which Chabad says totals 12,000 books and 50,000 rare documents, violated international law.
The collection was formerly held by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, a leader of Chabad-Lubavitch who was born in Russia but forced by the Soviets to leave in 1927. He took the documents to Latvia and later Poland, but left them behind when the Nazis invaded and he fled to the U.S. The collection was seized and taken to Germany, then recovered by the Soviet Army in 1945.
Attorneys representing Chabad at the law firm Bingham McCutchen said after five years of litigation, Russia “is now acting like a child who has lost the game and wants to start all over on its home court.”
“Obviously, Russia cannot justify why it has refused to return Jewish manuscripts which were stolen by the Nazis and then looted by the Soviet Army during the Second World War,” the attorneys said in a statement. “The plundering of religious texts during war is contrary to the Hague convention and the norms of any civilized society.”
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