MOSCOW — In 1922, a few years before he fled the Soviet Union, the sixth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson petitioned the Russian government to return 35 crates of books they had seized years earlier.
The books had been passed down to his father, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneerson, by his grandfather and had belonged collectively to generations of Lubavitch Hasidim going back to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, who began the collection in the 18th century.
There was an illustrated haggadah, published in 1712 in Amsterdam, its pages stained by wine that was spilled at Passover seders hundreds of years ago. There was a book printed in 1552 in Venice, not long after the printing press was invented, with a handwritten inscription in cursive Hebrew reminiscent of Arabic. There was a Torah from 1631, with comments in Latin, written in pencil by Christian scholars who had studied the Jewish holy book.
The Soviet government did not return the books, and for almost a century they remained on the shelves of the Lenin public library in Moscow. But this month the Russian State Library will finish scanning and putting online the more than 4,500 books in the Schneerson Collection, making them accessible to everyone in the world at the click of a mouse.
“We have about 10 to 20 books left to scan. They’ll be on the site in a month,” said Svetlana Khvostova, the Russian State Library employee in charge of the Schneerson Collection at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.
The international dispute
These contested books are claimed by both the United States and Russia, with each side demanding that the other pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for failing to return them.
The dispute goes back to World War I, when Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson (the fifth Chabad rabbi) and his son Yosef Schneerson fled the village of Lyubavichi in the face of advancing German troops and placed the books in storage in Moscow.
In the 1922 letter on display at the Jewish Museum in Moscow, Yosef Schneerson explains that he placed the books in storage because he did not have anywhere else to keep them. But when a few years later he wanted to take the books back, the government refused to return them. Instead they moved the books to a public library in Moscow.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chabad sued the Russian government in an American court for the return of the books, and in 2013 an American judge ruled that Russia should pay a fine of $50,000 per day for failing to do so. The Russian government, in return, opened its own case concerning seven books from the Schneerson Collection that were loaned to the Library of Congress in Washington DC in the 1990s, but were never returned to Russia, Khvostova said. Instead, the Library of Congress gave the books to Chabad.
Yet the Russian government did take a step toward a resolution of the matter when they invited a Chabad librarian to Moscow to pick out the books that had belonged to the Schneerson family. He selected the 4,651 books, which were moved from the Russian State Library to the special Schneerson Collection at the recently opened Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. American court documents mention 12,000 books, but Khvostova says she isn’t sure where they came up with this number.
Manuscripts, letters and photos still inaccessible
However, the manuscripts, letters, documents and family photographs of the Schneersons were not handed over to the Jewish Museum.
Allegedly, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson left these letters and documents behind in Poland when he fled to America during World War II, and they ended up in the hands of the Nazis. When the Soviet Union won the war, the Red Army took them to Moscow. The letters are currently kept at the Russian State Military Historical Archive in Moscow, and have all been scanned, but are not yet accessible online, Khvostova said.
The handwritten manuscripts the of Chabad-Lubavitch rebbes are still in the Russian State Library because the Jewish community didn’t mention them specifically, Khvostova said.
“The Hassidic community wrote a letter to Putin and they requested ‘the books from the Schneerson collection’ — so the manuscripts remained at the Russian State Library,” she said.
Visitors can see the manuscripts at the Russian State Library, but a written request needs to be made in advance and few people bother to do so, Khvostova said.
So far, only the published books from the Schneerson Collection have been made available online, but they are already being used by researchers outside of Russia. For example, a project at Columbia University in New York is studying the movement of early Jewish books based on inscriptions in them, Khvostova said.
“We always find something new in the margins of these books,” Khvostova said. “We see children’s drawings, scribbles, and even people practicing their handwriting.”
The books are kept in special cardboard boxes — microorganisms can’t survive in this acid-free cardboard, Khvostova said — in a temperature-controlled room with a gas-operated fire extinguishing system that ensures that the precious volumes wouldn’t be damaged even in case of a fire.
Not many Russians come to look at the books. These religious works are in Hebrew and are not of much interest even to Russian Jews, most of whom aren’t literate in the language. In fact, even the library employees at the Jewish Museum can’t read them.
Only three of the five staff members know some Hebrew, which they are studying at Moscow State University.
But the thing that most interests those who do come here from abroad is the sticker with the name of Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson and the name of his father and grandfather. The Chabad Hasidim believe that the books hold almost magical powers, Khvostova said.
“One time, a family came from America with five kids, they came here directly from the airport to see Schneerson’s books. They didn’t even go to the hotel,” she said. “Hasidic people who come here are not interested when we tell them that the books are scanned. They want to hold the book in their hands.”
The Schneerson Collection can be viewed online by visiting the site of the Russian State Library, clicking on “Online Catalogue,” then “Databases.” The collection can be searched through in either Hebrew or Russian.