In a not-unexpected conclusion to a federal lawsuit spanning much of the past decade, a federal judge in Washington, D.C, ordered the Russian government to return a treasured library of priceless Jewish manuscripts seized by the Red Army during World War II.
According to the June 30 order signed by Judge Royce C. Lamberth, chief justice of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Russian government’s seizure of portions of the library – which was left in Eastern Europe by the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, as he fled the continent for safety from the Holocaust – was discriminatory, served no public purpose and occurred without just compensation to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
The ruling, which followed a default judgment filed against the Russian government after it pulled out of the lawsuit in October, appeared to inch the legal chapter of the books’ return towards a final close. The case, which was brought by Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch in the United States, lasted six years.
“The District Court has correctly found that these most-revered religious writings were unlawfully taken and for far too long withheld by the Russian government, and has ordered that they now must be returned to their rightful owners,” said Bradford Reynolds of Howrey LLP, one of the lawyers representing Chabad-Lubavitch. “With this decision, we are close to the end of a long journey, and trust that we will soon have these sacred texts back in our possession.”
The library, which totals 12,000 volumes and 50,000 rare documents, followed the Sixth Rebbe out of Russia when the Soviets expelled him in 1927. They were left in Poland when the Rebbe went to the United States at the beginning of World War II. The Nazi army seized the collection, but it was recovered by the Soviet Army in 1945 at the close of World War II.
At several points during the Cold War, the issue of the library was a sore point between the Soviet Union and the United States, which hinged some trade measures on the return of the collection to Chabad-Lubavitch. A 2008 ruling gave Agudas Chasidei Chabad the right to sue Russia after proving the exhaustion of full diplomatic and legal avenues there.
Lamberth, who issued a restraining order against the Russian government at the beginning of 2009 after allegations that 12 handwritten pages dating to the 19th century had turned up in the hands of a Jerusalem-based expert, gave Moscow the option of returning the library to the U.S. Embassy.
“The return of these sacred materials to their proper home is long overdue,” said Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin LLP, who also represented Chabad-Lubavitch. “Russia should finally do what is right and not make it necessary for the Chabad community to enforce this judgment with the civil contempt remedies that are well-known and frequently invoked in American courts.”