Russia Returns 16 Long-Sought Books

The Lubavitch movement is celebrating the transfer of 16 more religious books to a Lubavitch-run synagogue in Moscow. But it is unclear when — and indeed, if — the balance of the thousands of books that make up the “Schneerson Library” will come into the ultra-Orthodox group’s hands.

Earlier this month, a group of Lubavitch Jews gathered in a downtown Moscow synagogue to welcome the 16 books that were returned to the movement from the Russian State Library, formerly known as the Lenin Library, where the collection has been held for the last 80 years.

With the 16 volumes returned this month, the count of books from the collection released by Russia this year increased to 30. Fourteen books were returned earlier this year in two batches.

A few years after the Russian Revolution, the books — estimates range from 4,000 to 12,000 volumes — were seized from the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, as part of a crackdown on religion.

Excitement, singing and clapping filled the room as West Coast Chabad director Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, who described the transfer as “the fulfillment of 80 years of imprisonment,” carried the pile of antique books into the Bronnaya Synagogue’s main hall. Long tables were put together and covered with tallitot (prayer shawls), before the books were laid out.

Cunin opened the front page of the thickest volume in the pile. “It’s Gemarrah,” he announced, referring to a volume of Talmudic texts. Another book turned out to be a 200-year-old prayer book of the first Lubavitcher rebbe, and Cunin recited his evening prayer over the newly found treasure.

The return of the books came after more than a decade of efforts. Agudas Chasidei Chabad-Lubavitch, a group affiliated with the Lubavitch movement, was established in 1990 with the goal of achieving the release of the Schneerson collection.

It took appeals by three U.S. administrations, all 100 U.S. senators, heads of state from various nations and Jewish leaders from around the world “to get these 16 volumes,” said the Los Angeles-based Cunin, who has been spearheading the Lubavitch effort to get the books returned. More directly, a gesture from the Bush administration apparently made the return possible.

At a ceremony in Moscow earlier this month, the United States returned to Russia an archive of the Smolensk Regional Committee of the Communist Party. At the end of World War II, the U.S. armed forces came into possession of the archive, looted by the Nazis when they occupied Russia during World War II. To show its appreciation for the archive, Russia agreed to return part of the Schneerson library. A senior Russian State Library official in charge of the Schneerson collection said the library was asked “to expedite the return” of some books to Lubavitch when the United States indicated it was ready to give back the Smolensk archive.

“These books are now the property of Chabad,” said Meri Trifonenko, head of the Russian State Library’s Oriental Center, where the collection is stored.

Rabbi Berel Lazar, leader of the Lubavitch movement in the former Soviet Union and one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, confirmed that the books will be transferred to the library at Moscow’s Marina Roscha Synagogue and Community Center, the movement’s main facility in Russia.

As part of the arrangement, the books must stay in Russia for now. A decision on the matter by the Russian Ministry of Culture could allow the Lubavitch movement to transfer the books to Brooklyn, location of the group’s international headquarters. However, it is unclear whether all parts of the Lubavitch movement want the books taken out of Russia.

The State Library’s Trifonenko said no more books have been marked for transfer to Chabad in the near future. She said that only those books from the Schneerson collection that have duplicates in the State Library’s main collection were transferred to Chabad.

Lubavitch officials said they hope the Russians will follow up on the return of the books. Cunin indicated that Chabad will continue its practice of appealing to the U.S. leadership to press Russia on the matter.