In 1990—the year before the fall of the Soviet Union—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, dispatched Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin to Moscow to retrieve thousands of Jewish books and manuscripts. Some centuries-old, the religious volumes and correspondence belonged to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
Cunin’s son, Rabbi Yosef Cunin, told JNS that the 12,000 volumes are part of at least two collections, both of which Soviet officials seized.
The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn—sent religious books from Smolensk to Moscow during World War I. Although he asked for their return following the war, the Bolsheviks refused. This forms the first collection.
In 1940, when Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, fled Warsaw for the United States, he left handwritten letters and records behind. The Nazis took those materials, intending to stock a library that would follow the annihilation of the Jewish people. After World War II, the Soviets looted the materials. This forms the second part of the Chabad collection.
Some of the materials are being held at the Jewish Museum of Tolerance in Moscow, run by the Russian State Library, in what it calls the “Schneerson Library.” The whereabouts of the rest of the items remain unknown, according to Cunin.
The museum site lists Alexander Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, as its director general. Neither the museum nor the federation responded to multiple JNS queries. Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia and part of the federation’s leadership, and the Russian embassy in Washington also did not respond to JNS queries.
Cunin told JNS that Boroda is “doing what needs to be done in his situation, which is organizing and maintaining Jewish life in Russia while it is still there.” Boroda, with whom he has spoken many times, “understands that our situation is not optimal to have the whole Jewish community reliant” on Russian President Vladimir Putin, Cunin said.
The Schneerson Library, a special branch of the state library, was moved to the museum in 2013, according to its website. Most of the books in the collection are fully digitized and available through the library’s website, and visitors can apply for and receive free library cards on site “to view the collection for free,” the museum states.
“Materials of the Schneerson collection are utilized by several research projects aiming at study of Jewish booklore in (the) Russian Federation,” the museum site adds. “One of the goals of these projects is to expose Jewish culture to (a) broad audience through the exhibitions held at the Schneerson library.”
‘These books are private property’
Sharon Liberman Mintz, curator of Jewish art at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary and senior Judaica specialist at Sotheby’s, has followed the case of the Chabad materials, which she maintains are looted private property.
“It means very little that this collection is being held in this manner. It is still illegal. These books are the private property of Chabad-Lubavitch, and the courts have ruled so,” she told JNS. She added that Russia has barred certain Chabad rabbis from entering the country.
Like Cunin, Mintz thinks that the museum’s Schneerson collection is only part of the Chabad materials that remain in Russia. Mintz compares the current situation to that of wartime restitution of sacred objects worldwide, and with Judaica, in particular, heirs today are able to find information online about objects belonging to their ancestors that in prior generations would have been very difficult, if not impossible.
Cunin told JNS there is no way of knowing how many books the museum holds in the Schneerson collection. And he calls that “unacceptable.”
In November 2017, a volume of the Talmud that surfaced at the Kedem Auction House in Israel was returned to Chabad.
‘You have no legal right to those books!’
When the senior Cunin was in Russia back in 1990, he decided it would help if the U.S. Senate pressured Russia to return the books and documents as a goodwill gesture. He phoned the Rebbe with the idea. The latter sent the younger Cunin, then 17, and his five brothers—Mendel (23), Zushe (21), Levi (19), Chaim (16) and Tzemach (14)—to Washington.
It proved a trial by fire for the six young men, none of whom had prior lobbying experience. U.S. Capitol Police officers proved helpful.
“The Capitol Police would tell us where the senators usually sat on the trams between the Senate offices and the U.S. Capitol,” Cunin said. “They would even seat us alongside the senators that they believed would have interest in our issue.”
Joe Lieberman, the Jewish former senator from Connecticut, told JNS he has been involved with Chabad since the 1960s. But his relationship intensified—and he first learned about the effort to retrieve the library—after going to hear the Rebbe speak on Simchat Torah in 1992 or 1993 at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y., the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He did so upon the invitation of the late film producer Jerry Weintraub.
“I have been a great admirer of the Rebbe ever since,” Lieberman said.
Cunin subsequently sought Lieberman out for help with the library due to the senator’s connections with then-President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
In June 2010, Lieberman raised the subject of the books in a conversation with Dmitry Medvedev, then president of Russia, when the latter was on an official visit to Washington. The question outraged Medvedev, he recalled.
“You have no legal right to those books. They are state property!” declared Medvedev, as Lieberman recalled.
In 1991, the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union ruled that the library was Chabad property, and on Feb. 17, 1992, then-President Boris Yeltsin promised then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker that Moscow would return the library. But Russia resolved not to return it under Putin, Lieberman said.
“He is a throwback to the bad days of Russia under communism. This is not just a fight for Chabad but also a fight for justice,” the former senator said.
‘Viewed as containing the souls of the Rebbes’
Steven Lieberman, Chabad’s lead outside counsel, is leading the legal fight to retrieve the library and has done so on a pro bono basis for eight years, the lawyer (no relation to the former senator) told JNS.
“These are holy books and personal papers of the Rebbes that belong to Chabad. They are viewed as containing the souls of the rebbes,” the attorney told JNS. (The Rebbe has written about “souls” residing in these texts and the religious duty to return them home as if they were akin to captive Jews.)
Chabad initiated a lawsuit in D.C. Federal District Court in 2004. Russia was present in court and fought for four years before ultimately losing.
In that trial—and later, in the Court of Appeals for Washington D.C. for the Federal Circuit—judges ruled that Russia stole the books and needed to return them to Chabad. Russia has racked up $178 million in penalties since it first refused to adhere to the rulings.
The attorney and his team have so far sought unsuccessfully to seize Russian government assets around the world. “Russia only understands force,” he said.
An entity called the Chabad Foundation of Sacred Books, which is raising money to support the collection’s return, is working on a documentary that incorporates interviews with key people attempting to get the library back.
“Ultimately, what we want is for the Schneerson library” to be returned to “770 Eastern Parkway, where it belongs,” said Cunin. “This is a very sacred place for us, where the Rebbe’s spirit flows through everything. As long as these books are in the custody of the Russian government, it is tantamount to the imprisonment of the Rebbe.”