The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow announced on Nov. 18 that they had received more than 2,000 books belonging to the Schneerson Library, a collection of old Jewish books and manuscripts built at the end of the 19th century in the Russian empire by Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson.
The move is aimed at solving a dispute between Russia and the United States over the ownership of the collection. The books are being transferred to the center from the Russian State Library, where they had been stored ever since part of the collection was nationalized by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Schneerson managed to take another part of the collection out of the Soviet Union when he emigrated in 1927. When 25,000 pages of manuscripts were seized by the Nazis and subsequently regained by the Red Army, however, the second part of the collection returned to Russia and was acquired by the Russian State Military Archive. Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement, has been seeking the Schneerson collection's handover since the end of the 1980s.
Uri Gershowisch, director of the Jewish Museum's research center, says the returned books have a sacral function: "The value of these books is immaterial, what's important is that they have been returned to the [Jewish] community."
It is little wonder that in the late 1980s, immediately after the lifting of the Iron Curtain, Chabad-Lubavitch began demanding that the return the collection to the Jewish community.
A legal battle ensued. In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton addressed the Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin asking him to return the books. In 2005, several U.S. senators and congressmen signed a similar appeal to the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin. One year later, a number of Chabad rabbis filed a lawsuit with the Federal Court in Washington, D.C.
What makes the story so controversial is that the books spent decades lying unsorted in a restricted-access area of the Russian State Library, available neither to scholars nor to the general public.
It was not even entirely clear whether all the books which were thought of as part of the Schneerson Library actually belonged to it. The collection was not catalogued; the books were stored side by side with Jewish religious books from other collections. The U.S. speculated there must be around 15,000 books in the Schneerson collection, while Russia stated the number was closer to 1,500.
On August 6, 2010, a federal judge in Washington ruled in favor of Chabad-Lubavitch, declaring that the books were being kept in the Russian State Library and Russian Military Archive illegally.
The Russian Foreign Ministry challenged the judgment. It was later reported that a U.S. district court in Washington had ruled that the Russian government pay $50,000 a day as a fine until the Schneerson collection was fully returned to Chabad-Lubavitch, in compliance with the 2010 court order.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the library's handover to the U.S. was impossible and proposed placing the collection in the Jewish Museum in Moscow to make it available to the public.
"The [Jewish] Museum has already set up a special section in conjunction with the Russian State Library," says Gershowisch. "The library digitizes all the books before handing them over to the museum. Anyone can come and get access to these books. What we are also doing is returning books to the scientific society; two students are already using materials [from the Schneerson] Library in their course papers."
The entire collection, which consists of an estimated 4,500 volumes, is expected to have fully migrated to the Jewish Museum by 2014.
Legally, the books still remain property of the State Library. "They are simply being moved to another place," says Borukh Gorin of the Federation of Jewish Communities. "The books will be kept in the museum but won't change ownership."
Gorin says the Washington plaintiff is dissatisfied with the move, but notes that the property issue is a totally different story: "Our mission is to [re-]introduce these books into the scholarly society and compile them into a comprehensive collection."