At issue is an irreplaceable library of some 12,000 rare books, 381 manuscripts and 25,000 pages of handwritten rabbinical teachings that were once held by the Chabad-Lubavitch head rabbis but were left behind when the rabbis fled for safety during the world wars. The collection now sits in the Russian State Library and the Russian State Military Archive. Chabad is suing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to get it back. Last month, after nearly five years of litigation, Russia said it would no longer participate in the case.
"They have decided that, after they lost the first couple rounds, they're taking their marbles and going home," said Nathan Lewin, one of the lawyers representing Chabad.
But Lewin suggests his client isn't likely to give up so quickly. What's four years when -- to quote Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, who has led Chabad's efforts to recover the library -- you're engaged in a "spiritual quest"?
STEEPED IN TEARS
Today, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement is one of ultra-orthodox Judaism's most influential sects and is based in New York. As for the library, Cunin, who is head of Chabad-Lubavitch on the West Coast, called it "the essence, the soul [of Chabad]. These books are steeped with the tears of the rebbes who wrote them."
A century ago, the Lubavitchers were based in Russia. During the Communist Revolution, Bolsheviks seized the library of their leader, the fifth rabbi, who had left it in a Moscow warehouse while escaping World War I. Two decades later, the sixth rabbi was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Poland, leaving behind his own library. By the war's end, that library had been looted by Hitler's troops, then taken again by Soviet soldiers, who carted it back to Moscow, there to join the fifth rabbi's collection.
Like so many things that disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, the fate of the library was not clear. At one point, Soviet authorities said it had burned in an accidental fire. But the library resurfaced in 1988, and Chabad began negotiations to try to have it returned. Over time, it enlisted political figures such as then-Secretary of State James Baker III and then-Vice President Al Gore in its efforts to cajole Russia's political leaders. Despite several promises and the return of eight token books, the library has stayed put.
In court documents, Russia has said it considers the library a part of its cultural heritage -- after all, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement began there, and the sect is alive in Russia today. This dispute parallels an ongoing debate about Russia's World War II legacy. The country has been notoriously slow, and often outright unwilling, to return the millions of cultural treasures it seized from Germany and other territories it occupied. These so-called "trophies" the Russian government sees as compensation for the horrors Russia suffered at the hands of the Nazis. It has promised to review its collections for art that originally belonged Jewish families, but has yet to do so.
"I really don't think that they're intent on keeping the Jewish looted art, but I don't think there's any political will to move it along or the resources to do it," said Stuart Eizenstat, a partner at Washington's Covington & Burling who has been deeply involved in Holocaust restitution efforts.