Rabbis trying to retrieve Jewish texts from Russia

WASHINGTON – A group of rabbis and human rights advocates urged the government Wednesday to step up efforts to help reclaim a collection of religious texts held for two decades by the Russian government. At a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, rabbis affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement – an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group – said Russia’s refusal to return the works despite years of negotiations violates international law and deprives them of part of their cultural heritage. “To us, their value is not about art and perhaps not even sanctity, but family,” said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Chabad’s social services and educational organizations. “These books are like human beings. They give life to life.” Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, held the hearing to call greater attention to the Chabad community’s attempts to retrieve the texts. Most of the texts were seized over 80 years ago from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson as part of a Soviet crackdown on religion after the Russian Revolution. The hearing is the latest chapter in Chabad’s 20-year effort – with the help of U.S. officials – to reclaim the collection. Last month, all 100 senators signed a letter urging the Russian government to return the works to Chabad. Senior White House officials delivered the letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his meeting with President George W. Bush last month in Bratislava, Slovakia. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to raise the issue with Russian officials again this month when she travels to Moscow, said Ambassador Edward O’Donnell Jr., the State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues. Brownback said Bush should put the issue “at the top of his agenda” when he meets again with Putin in May. His comments were met with applause from dozens of bearded Chabad members in the Senate hearing room dressed in traditional black suits and broad-brimmed black hats. Russian officials have been reluctant to return the collection, fearing it would lead to claims by others whose assets were confiscated by the Soviet state and ended up in state-run cultural institutions. Actor and human rights advocate Jon Voight, who also testified for Chabad, called the books “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.” In December 2002, the Russian government returned some of the books to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. But that was only a tiny portion of the collection, and the Russian State Library has the rest. Other religious texts, thought to be destroyed in the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, are being held at the Russian State Military Archive. The books are known as the “Schneerson collection,” named for the prominent Lubavitcher family that included the Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the charismatic leader of the largest group of Hasidic Jews, a major force in Judaism that may number from tens of thousands to a million or more. He died in 1994. In a statement to the commission Wednesday, the Russian embassy called it “inappropriate” to involve Congress in the dispute. “It is our position that the collection belongs to Russia,” the statement said. “It is part of the national cultural heritage of Russians and of Jewish communities around the world.” The dispute also is the subject of a lawsuit Chabad filed last year against the Russian Federation in federal court in Los Angeles.By The Associated Press + BPI-info