Helsinki Commission Urges State Department to Seek Return of Schneerson Collection

by Baila Olidort - WASHINGTON, D.C.

April 7, 2005

In a dramatic gesture in the Senate on Wednesday, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan), Chairman of the Helsinki Commission presiding over the hearings on the Schneerson Collection—a library of books and manuscripts that Chabad-Lubavitch is seeking to have returned by Russia--asked Holocaust survivors who had been victims of communist persecution to please rise. About eight of the two dozen Chabad-Lubavitch witnesses stood up to an emotional outburst of applause.

Later, Marshall Grossman, the attorney representing Chabad in its legal case to recover the library, said that the country that victimized these people cannot claim that the Schneerson collection is their national treasure. “These people are a national treasure. And they want their books returned to them.”

But Russia is making this claim and has done so for the last 20 years, since Chabad confirmed evidence of some 12,000 volumes and 25,000 pages of manuscripts from the collections of early Chabad Rebbes. The collection was seized by communist authorities in oppressive anti-religious and anti-Jewish measures during the Soviet regime.

Today the books and manuscripts are kept respectively, in the Russian State Library and the Russian Military Archives in Moscow. For Chabad’s west coast director, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, who spearheaded these efforts at the behest of the Rebbe back in 1991, these hearings represented the voice of justice. “We will not rest until the books are returned to us once and for all. This has been going on long enough, and if he wants to, President Vladimir Putin can have these books returned to Chabad in the United States, with the snap of a finger.”

In his comments to the commission, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of the Lubavitch educational and social services divisions said: “We cherish these books not as art, and perhaps not even for their sanctity. “These books are about family. They give life to life.”

Conducted at the initiative of senators representing the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the hearings were intended to formally record and document Chabad’s long struggle to recover the Schneerson Collection, and to win a commitment by the Bush administration to pressure Russia for return of the books to Chabad-Lubavitch in New York.

According to Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota), this is the “first issue I know of to have won bi-partisan and bicameral support.” Coleman, who raised the matter with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her confirmation hearings, was referring to a letter signed by all 100 senators last month urging President Putin to return Collection to its rightful owners in the United States.

Fearing that return of this collection would set a precedent for other claims of property confiscated during Soviet times, Russia has refused to return the books. In a statement by the Russian Federation to the commission, it claims the collection as "part of the national cultural heritage of Russian and Jewish communities."

In his testimony to the Helsinki Commission, Ambassador Edward O’Donnell, Jr., Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues representing the U.S. Department of State spoke of a “mutually acceptable solution.” Russia, he conceded, has “made a political commitment to negotiate a resolution of the final status of the Schneerson Library, but now maintain that they are prepared only to discuss the use of the library and not its transfer,” to the U. S.

This is unacceptable to Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of the worldwide Lubavitch movement. "The Rebbe was unequivocal about the books and manuscripts being returned to their rightful home at the central Lubavitch library in New York," said Rabbi Cunin.

O’Donnell assured the commission that the matter would be taken up with the Russians when the Secretary of State makes her first official visit to Moscow. "Secretary Rice will be making a trip to Moscow the 19th and 20th of April. And she intends to raise this issue in this her first visit to Moscow since becoming secretary of state."

Human rights advocate and actor Jon Voight made an impassioned appeal for the return of the books to Chabad-Lubavitch's main library in New York. Identifying himself as a Catholic, he spoke of the documents being the heritage and legacy of the Jewish people, which derive from the 10 Commandments that teach, thou shalt not steal. “These books and manuscripts don’t talk to the Russians. They are the voices of the ancestors of the Hebrew nation. For anyone else to claim them as their own is a reminder of all the anti-Semitic pollution through the years of genocide and destruction of human life.”

To view a transcipt of the proceedings, as well as the statements submitted to the commission, visit The Schneerson Collection and Historical Justice Hearing.

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