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Putin Refuses To Let the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Library Leave Moscow

An international cast of characters is embroiled in a bizarre legal dispute over the late rabbi’s personal collection of books

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There was something surprisingly calm about the tiny Brooklyn courtyard of 770 Eastern Parkway, the address of the international headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch. Groups of Hasidic men passed by talking, clutching cellphones, laughing, carrying boxes of books. One morning this past March, I knocked on a heavy wooden door; someone inside the building buzzed me in.

Down dark hallways and anonymous stairwells, the library of the Agudas Chasidei Chabad was eerily silent. Only the third floor offered a sign of life: a simple exhibition room with an assortment of glass cases, documents from the 18th century enclosed, rebbes’ walking sticks, streimels, phylacteries, portraits, shtenders, and grandfather clocks. The descriptions are in a mix of Hebrew and English, a jumble of cards and numbers that is barely decipherable. This is the kingdom of Rabbi Berel Levin, chief librarian and archivist in charge of over 250,000 books on the premises.

But these 250,000 works constitute only some of Chabad’s official library. There are another 15,000 books, which have been housed for the past century in the shadow of Moscow’s Kremlin and which have been the center of a decades-old property dispute between Russian officials and Chabad representatives based in the United States.

When I explained my reasons for coming to 770 Eastern Parkway, Rabbi Levin sighed. He agreed to speak with me, but only to discuss the history of Chabad’s missing books; the current status of the absent library of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, was strictly off-limits.

“A very sensitive time we are in now,” he said, watching me carefully from across his desk. Over the past four years, the fate of the Schneersohn library has had its international consequences, as American-Russian relations grow increasingly strained. Since February 2011, Russians have refused to loan any artwork to American museums, fearing the pieces will be used as ransom for the Schneersohn books. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow have effectively canceled all loans, the New York Times reported in January; American museums have been left scrambling for alternative pieces to fill major gaps in their exhibits. Walk into any major American museum’s exhibit and you’ll see the blank spaces: The Metropolitan’s most recent Matisse exhibit lacked the painter’s iconic goldfish (housed in the Pushkin Museum); the National Gallery of Art’s upcoming 2014 exhibit of Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt will probably not include the Degas’ “Blue Dancers” or a Cassatt version of “Mother and Child.” “We are all caught up in a political situation that is not of our making,” Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told the New York Times at the time of the Russians’ unparalleled decision to halt art traffic.

“All right,” I replied, just as carefully. “Tell me about the past, then. What brought us here?”

The white-bearded rabbi looked down for a long moment, and then he began.

***

The story of the Schneersohn library is the stuff of a novel, or a movie—a sacred centuries-old collection of rare and holy books at the center of a longstanding and ever-widening dispute among an international cast of characters: rabbis, American lawyers, unsmiling Russian government officials, the heads of major American museums, Al Gore, and Vladimir Putin. The library in question was originally owned by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe and father-in-law of the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Housed in Lubavitch, Russia, Rabbi Schneersohn’s personal collection amounted to 12,000 religious books and 25,000 pages of handwritten manuscripts. During the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, half of the books were seized by the Bolsheviks and nationalized according to the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of 1918, eventually landing in the archives of Moscow’s national Lenin Library.

In 1927, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn was sentenced to death by firing squad for “counterrevolutionary activities”; after protests in the West, his sentence was commuted to exile from the Soviet Union. As he fled, he managed to salvage the remaining half of his collection, mostly thousands of pages of handwritten Lubavitch manuscripts and responsa, and settled in Warsaw. At the start of World War II, as the German army approached, Schneersohn found himself fleeing yet again, leaving his letters behind in a warehouse. The Nazis looted the warehouse and transported the library to Berlin; in 1945, the Red Army captured the collection from German hands and proceeded to place the texts in the state’s military archives in Moscow. The books—both those kept in the national library and the manuscripts kept in the military archive—were unheard of for decades.

But ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with perestroika and the resurgence of Chabad’s presence in Russia, representatives of the Crown Heights’ library of Agudei Chasidei Chabad began a tireless battle with the Russian government for the return of its books, a battle affecting the heads of state, court judges, and Chabadniks on both sides.

“We just want the thing itself,” Levin told me, handing me with trembling hands a photocopied handwritten catalog of the books. “We just want it. There’s a cheshbon, a reasoning, for holding the physical sefarim, simply because our rabbis wrote them, held them.”  But the dispute over ownership of the Schneersohn library isn’t simply a game of chess, or an unlikely cause of Russian-American political tension. It’s also a collision of an American way of negotiating—dominated by justice, law, courts—with its Russian counterpart—grand speeches, followed by abrupt silence.

In the late 1980s, when Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev showed some willingness to negotiate the ownership of the collection, Chabad turned to the Russian courts, who ultimately ruled in favor of the collection’s transfer to New York. Schneerson dispatched a delegation of his close disciples to Moscow, a group that would include Rabbi Levin. “We went there for several days,” Levin says. “It was on an official invitation by the Russian government to help identify the books, but the Russian library didn’t permit us to even look at the books, just to look at the catalog. Now, how can you study like this? We had to do all of our research from the reading room only. I took the catalog, and I picked from there the 12 most rare books. I gave the librarian the list, and said, ‘Do me a favor, take the catalog and look for these titles. Bring back this list with details about the shelf and department of each title.’ And what do you know? The librarian brought back the list, and all of the titles were cataloged in the same department. In that moment, I knew where our collection was. They were kept together, deep inside.”

Levin chronicled his time in Russia in a meticulous 400-page Hebrew diary, which he would later publish upon returning to New York. “The Rebbe did not permit us to come home without the books. So, we stayed there for a year and a half,” he says matter-of-factly. “I was there in Moscow for a year and a half, without anything, we thought we were going there for only a few days. I didn’t even have a coat with me. But the Rebbe had a policy: You don’t come back until you come back with the books.” Levin closed the collection catalog, ran a hand across the cover and said wearily, “I’m running this library already 35 years—these books, they are my life.”

While Levin and his colleagues Rabbi Shlomo Cunin and Rabbi Yitzchak Kogan worked to negotiate with the Lenin Library, Lubavitch also began employing efforts in Washington, the most famous of which in Chabad lore is the story of how in 1991, Rabbi Cunin sent his teenage sons, yeshiva students at the time, to lobby on Capitol Hill. After a week of knocking on doors, riding the underground subway between the House and Senate with congressmen, the Cunin boys managed to secure letters of support from 70 senators.

But it was in vain. In Moscow, negotiations had come to a standstill. “At one point, after more than a year, the Russians didn’t talk to us anymore,” Levin said. “We exhausted all our efforts. So, for two months we were there not doing anything about the sefarim, and then came the stroke [of the Rebbe]. Then I asked the secretaries of the Rebbe what to do; they asked the Rebbe and he shook his head, and I came back. We lost.” The Rebbe died in June 1994.

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Putin Refuses To Let the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Library Leave Moscow

An international cast of characters is embroiled in a bizarre legal dispute over the late rabbi’s personal collection of books