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US auction house halts sale of 19th-century burial book said stolen in Holocaust

Romanian Jews say ledger, covering history of Orthodox community in city of Cluj for 50 years from 1836, went missing during WWII; restitution society also urged lot be withdrawn

The ledger of the burial society of Cluj, Romania. (Kestenbaum & Company via JTA)
The ledger of the burial society of Cluj, Romania. (Kestenbaum & Company via JTA)

An auction house in New York has suspended the sale of a document that a Jewish community in Romania said had been stolen from it.

Kestenbaum & Company, a Brooklyn firm that has specialized in the care of rare Judaic material culture for 25 years, on Wednesday pulled off its catalog what the Jewish Community of Cluj says is a 19th-century ledger from its Jewish burial society.

“The handwritten register has great value as a historical document, covering over 50 years of the history of the Orthodox Jewish Community, right from the year of the founding of the Society in 1836, but it is also a valuable art object, due to its exceptional aesthetic presentation,” the Jewish community wrote in a statement published last week.

The ledger disappeared during the Holocaust and therefore is “stolen property,” the letter said.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization also said it had asked that the auction, which was scheduled to begin Thursday, not go through.

“Any item that passes through our hands is subject to detailed investigation in this regard,” a Kestenbaum spokesperson told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an email. “Consequently, in respect to recently acquired information, Lot 33 has been withdrawn from our Judaica auction scheduled for Thursday, February 18th.”

It had been estimated to fetch $5,000-$7,000, the New York Times reported Friday.

Daniel Kestenbaum, the founding chairman of the auction house, told the paper via email that the seller had agreed to hold further discussions about the matter with the restitution organization.

The president of the Jewish Community of Cluj, Robert Schwartz, explained the significance of the ledger.

“Very little belonging to the community survived World War II,” Schwartz told the Times. “It’s surprising that the book surfaced at auction because no one knew anything about its existence. We have few documents or books, so this manuscript is a vital source of information about the community in the 19th century.”

Only one of the three synagogues in the city is used for Jewish worship and the ledger “could be very valuable as a key exhibit,” said Schwarz, a Holocaust survivor of Cluj. He was born in a cellar after his pregnant mother managed to escape the city’s ghetto, according to the report.

Since 2010, he has led the community as it strives to rebuild itself.

After Nazi Germany occupied Cluj in 1944, more than 16,000 Jewish people, almost the entire community, were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where nearly all died.

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