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US seizes artifacts looted from WWII Eastern European Jewish communities

17 funeral scrolls, manuscripts and community records from 19th-century recovered ahead of auction; Justice Department says items will be returned to communities

Illustrative: After the surrender of Nazi Germany, Chaplain Samuel Blinder is seen in the cellar of the former Institute for Racial Sciences in Frankfurt, July 6, 1945. Standing amid a collection of manuscripts and books taken from every Nazi occupied country in Europe, he examines one of hundredsTorah scrolls (AP Photo)
Illustrative: After the surrender of Nazi Germany, Chaplain Samuel Blinder is seen in the cellar of the former Institute for Racial Sciences in Frankfurt, July 6, 1945. Standing amid a collection of manuscripts and books taken from every Nazi occupied country in Europe, he examines one of hundredsTorah scrolls (AP Photo)

NEW YORK — Investigators have seized historic artifacts stolen from Eastern European Jewish communities during World War II that were set to be auctioned in the United States, federal officials said Thursday.

New York-based auction house Kestenbaum & Company was due to sell 17 19th-century funeral scrolls, manuscripts and community records before they were seized off the back of an “extensive” investigation, a Justice Department statement said.

The artifacts were looted “in the midst of our world’s darkest of times” during the Holocaust from Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine, Peter Fitzhugh, special-agent-in-charge at the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative arm, said in the statement.

“We are fortunate to be part of the team that is able to return these artifacts to their rightful Jewish communities,” Fitzhugh added.

Law enforcement learned in February 2021 that the Brooklyn-based auction house was selling the objects, rich in information dating from 1840 up to the start of World War II.

They include prayers for the dead, community rules, names of religious leaders and in some cases, the names of community members sent to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz.

Their sale was suspended at the request of the Jewish community in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, a group founded after the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and specialized in the restitution of stolen Jewish property.

Illustrative: A Romanian member of the Jewish community covers his eyes as he stands behind a honor guard during Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations at the Holocaust memorial, in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Among the recovered objects is a book linked to the Jewish community in Cluj-Napoca, which thrived before the war.

According to an affidavit, investigators had found mention of the document in a book published in Cluj in 1936, but there was no trace of it after the Holocaust, suggesting it had been stolen.

In the absence of any paper trail, “there is no legitimate means by which the manuscripts and scrolls could have been imported into the United States,” the Justice Department statement said.

The affidavit said the auction house had sold some of the artifacts before being contacted by law enforcement, but had since halted sales.

However, officials preferred to seize the artifacts for fear the seller of the items would cease to cooperate, the affidavit added.

“The items are in demand from buyers across the globe and can be easily sold and/or transferred to frustrate the government’s efforts to unite them with the survivors and successors of the originating communities.”

The Justice Department statement gave no indication as to when the artifacts may be returned.

In a statement, Kestenbaum & Company said: “Our client rescued these historical records at a time when they were tragically left abandoned, in countries that were, as state policy, actively suppressing both Jewish memory of the past as well as the freedom of expression of the handful of surviving Jews still resident in these Communist lands.

“As the political culture and makeup of these countries has changed, so complex questions remain unresolved concerning the material culture left behind… Kestenbaum & Company supports the actions of the US Attorney’s office in the ongoing effort to appropriately resolve this meta-historical problem.”

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