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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.

In May 1992, the United States Senate signed a letter to President Boris Yeltsin, asking him to return the books; a year later, Al Gore, one of the campaign’s biggest supporters, managed to secure a 100-year-old Tanya volume, presented to him as a gesture of Russian good will. To Lubavitch’s delight, the Russian State Library gave President Clinton another seven books as an interlibrary loan to the Library of Congress—the books were brought directly from the airport to the Agudas Chasidei Chabad library in Crown Heights, rather than to Washington.

But in 1992, the Russian High Court suddenly canceled the decision to return the collection. It was only in 2004 that Chabad’s umbrella organization, Agudas Chasidei Chabad (represented by the formidable Nathan Lewin, the Washington-based lawyer who has represented several Jewish organizations in high-profile legal battles), sued the Russian government for withholding what they claimed was rightfully theirs, under the Foreign Sovereignties Immunities Act—a legal representation whose financing would be organized by Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, one of the former Moscow emissaries. Russia participated actively in the U.S. litigation for 5 years, challenging the American courts’ jurisdiction over the matter. In 2009, however, when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the American courts had jurisdiction, Russia withdrew from the court proceedings, insisting that the Appeals Court decision had no legal relevance in Russia.

***

Since January, as Russian-American relations have soured, thanks to Congress’ Magnitsky Act barring certain Russian officials from entrance to the United States, and then the more recent Edward Snowden affair, the transatlantic dispute over the Schneersohn library has only intensified. On Jan. 9, 2013, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled for civil contempt sanctions against the Russian Federation, the Russian Ministry of Culture, the Russian State Library, and the Russian State Military Archive, for their refusal to return the documents, imposing a daily $50,000 fine on the Russian government for withholding the books.

In response, the Kremlin issued an official statement calling the Lamberth ruling “an absolutely unlawful and provocative decision” and threatening a response of “severe measures” if U.S. authorities try to seize Russian property. The Schneersohn collection is a “national treasure of the Russian people,” Russian officials gravely stated; the director of the Oriental Center Sergey Kukushkin echoed these thoughts in his introduction to the collection’s Russian State Library catalog that “the history of this collection is inseparable from the history of the Library itself, as well as from the history of Russia.”

In June 2013, the Russian administration ruled that the collection would be transferred to Moscow’s new and wondrous Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. The decision is unprecedented, for a national library collection to be transferred to another location—though the Museum will now be considered another branch of the Russian State Library, and will continue to be under Russian government ownership and control. Putin announced the decision as “an end to this problem once and for all,” which Chabad of Russia greeted as a victory for the Lubavitch movement. At President Putin’s press conference, one of Russia’s chief rabbis Berel Lazar opened his remarks with a “Gut yom tov,” while Hasidim danced and drank l’chaim’s.

At headquarters in Crown Heights, however, people are not remotely as happy. Lewin & Lewin, Chabad’s legal representatives, decried the situation as “unacceptable” and rejected Putin’s claim that the dispute is now closed. “Russia’s own courts concluded in the 1990s that the Schneersohn Library was never nationalized and belongs to Chabad,” Lewin & Lewin said in a statement this summer. “There is no justification for Russia’s retention of Jewish texts that were stolen by the Nazis in Poland and then looted by the Red Army during the Holocaust.”

“They belong here,” Rabbi Levin told me, breathlessly, as I stood to leave his study. “They’re in jail and they have to come back to where they belong.” He paused, shook his head, and added in a whisper, “The attachment of the Rebbe and the Frierdiker [Previous] Rebbe to the library was [so deep it was] not to be understood. Not to be understood.”

***

A few months after my visit to the library in Brooklyn, I traveled to Moscow to knock on larger doors: those of the Russian State Library, also known as the Lenin Library, where the iconic Dostoevsky monument sits in front, a flock of pigeons at his feet. An elderly librarian guided me to a 1990s-era red telephone near the card catalog. “Dial this code, they’ll tell you where to find it.”

A woman’s voice answered. “You mean the Schneersohn collection? Excuse me, who are you?” I told her my Russian name and that I’m a student.

“You know, devushka, there’s a big debate over these books now, it’s not so simple.”

“Listen, I’m a humanities student, I just want to see the books—”

“What, you think just anyone can see them? You must come with a letter from your director and fill out an application for permission in advance. It’ll take a month to process.”

My flight back to New York was in two days.

“But the State Library’s statement says explicitly that it’s open to the public—”

“They’ve moved them today,” she said abruptly. “The books are already being moved to the Museum of Tolerance.” Then the phone line went dead.

It was pouring the next morning when I met with Rabbi Boruch Gorin, scholar, editor of the prolific Knizhniki, a Russian-language publishing house of Jewish literature funded by the Avi Chai Foundation, and a spokesperson for Russia’s Chief Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar—the Italian-born Chabad leader who earned the reputation, among Russian Jews at least, as a member of Putin’s boys’ club. (Avi Chai is affiliated with the Keren Keshet Foundation, which created Nextbook Inc., Tablet Magazine’s publisher.) Regardless of rumor, what’s indisputable is that Lazar’s connections have been invaluable to Chabad growth in Russia today: Throughout the country, the movement has 190 communities, 120 emissaries, and a school system that numbers more than 10,000 students. “Rabbi Lazar advises on religious relations, in an unprecedented relationship with the President of the Russian Federation,” Rabbi Gorin told me as we sat down in his study. “And yes, in regard to your question about the books, 350 documents were transported yesterday, out of a library of 4,500, we estimate.” The signatures inside the books would need to be examined further, in a painstaking process of transporting and identifying, that will take eight to nine months. Gorin explained that the museum intends to create a digital library, making the books entirely accessible to the public.

“For the past 100 years, since 1915, the books were no longer seen by their owner. We don’t even know what the books are. All these years, they were never described, the collection is undocumented—”

“But isn’t there a handwritten catalog somewhere?” I asked, thinking back to Rabbi Levin’s trembling hands. Gorin paused and then answered: “Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn rushed to send all the books for refuge, in 35 crates. His catalog that he wrote from memory had 12,500 titles total, and we’re not sure if it’s accurate at all. So, the Lenin Library has to identify them first.” He explained that the Lenin Library has always had two Hebraists on staff, specialists who will be responsible for the cataloging.

“Even in the Soviet era? Hebraists in the Lenin Library?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes, always,” Gorin said, smiling. “No one outside knew, of course. The Schneersohn books are only part of the Lenin Library’s Hebrew collection. There’s also Gunzburg, Repeze, hundreds of thousands of books. Later we will understand what we have received and not received, and then we will continue the conversation with Lenin Library in retrieving whatever books are missing. We’re most interested, of course, in the handwritten manuscripts.”

When I asked Gorin about the history of the dispute, he answered calmly, with the articulate Russian of a Moscow intellectual. “If [the library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad in Crown Heights] wanted the books, they should have fought harder in the early ’90s,” he said. “There was a brief window of time then when the Russians were more lenient about these things. In the early nineties a group of experts came, and identified the books as Schneersohn collection pieces, which was huge, but they left because of a conflict. But at least they found the books.” It is also true, he asserted, that the fact that the books were hidden in Moscow saved them from being destroyed during the war. “And understand that the Schneersohn library is typical of great eastern European rabbis’ personal collections,” he said. “Most of the libraries elsewhere were destroyed; in the ghettos and during the Leningrad siege, the books ended up being used as substitute for firewood.”

“So, the library, if it’s so typical—is it really a ‘national treasure of the Russian people’?” I asked.

Gorin waved a hand. “That’s all emotion, rhetoric. The issue has nothing to do with Russian history or the Russian people. It’s simply the federal Russian law. Giving away books from any of the three national libraries is not up for discussion with the Russian government.”

“And what about the manuscripts in the military archive—not the ones in the Lenin Library?” I asked. “Is there a difference?”

He nodded vigorously. “This is the biggest mistake that people are making—the manuscripts that are being kept in the military archive are not subject to the same Russian federal laws that books in a national library are. They’re different stories, different laws. [The library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad] should differentiate between the two and fight for its right to the manuscripts in the military archive, which they’re the rightful owners of. That collection, by present Russian law, may and must be taken out. But instead they’ve deliberately decided to conflate the two stories into one, which in my opinion is a mistake on their part.”

“And what about the legal precedent here—is Putin worried about other similar claims cropping up?”

“Yes,” Gorin agreed. “Something like that.”

While newspapers rushed to paint the conflict as one over ownership of a Jewish treasure—few mentioned that the Russians aren’t so worried about losing precious Jewish manuscripts, but rather about setting a legal precedent for returning nationalized Soviet property at large.

“The Russians are afraid,” the director of research for the Claims Conference, Dr. Wesley Fisher, told me one evening over dinner in a Minsk hotel. Fisher sighed when I casually mentioned the Schneersohn library. “Something that became part of the national holdings in the 1920s will cause a whole series of issues with what was similarly nationalized from the nobility and other ethnic groups, including the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russians are afraid that everything will unravel. And as for the Americans, frankly, it’s not clear to me that it’s a good way of handling these matters.”

Fisher’s point here is noteworthy; the American handling of the affair seems to play along a different set of rules than the one that the Russians are playing by, and it’s questionable if there’s even a single move left to make on this complicated chessboard. The dispute over the Schneersohn library isn’t so much a Chabad rift between Crown Heights and Moscow, or a part of a larger Russian-American political conflict—the latter is sufficiently tense without Judaica involved.

It’s a clash of mentality more than anything else, a battle of the American value of property rights against Russian realpolitik. While Chabad’s U.S. legal representatives refuse to surrender, Gorin and Lazar are not so worried about the principle of the matter—they’re bending to the will of Russian policy, for the sake of the future of the Russian Jewish community. It’s a Diaspora reality that Jews in Russia know well, but one that perhaps their determined American brethren have forgotten, one in which one stops asking questions and swallows the lot of being an Outsider. “Lazar is still treading on thin ice,” Anton Nossik, one of Russia’s most popular and powerful bloggers, explained to me recently, lighting a cigarette and then lifting one foot. “Regardless of how often he makes a l’chaim with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, he’s on thin ice, and he’s standing on it with only one foot, too.” And given their position, Moscow’s Chabad leadership is well aware of the necessity for a Solomonic compromise; taking a page out of their elders’ books, perhaps they’ve decided that finding favor in the tsar’s eyes might just be worth the price.

Somewhere in Moscow, as the holiday of Simchat Torah passes, archivists work quickly to catalog and digitize centuries-old Hebrew documents; while in a far-off study in Brooklyn, an elderly rabbi still waits for the books he couldn’t return to his Rebbe.

***

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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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