February 24, 2005
Chabad Sues Russia to Recover Texts
In a continuing effort to recover an archive of century-old original manuscripts and texts left behind in the former Soviet Union in the early 20th century, Chabad is taking the Russian Federation to the International Court of Law.
A Santa Monica-based law firm has filed suit on behalf of the Chabad organization to retrieve the collection of rare and original books and manuscripts on philosophy, religious law and prayer produced by the founders of the movement. The lawsuit contends that the Russian Federation has violated international law by wrongfully retaining the collection. The Russian Federation has until the end of February to respond to the complaint, after refusing to reply to numerous requests made by both the Jewish organization and the United States.
"At stake here are not just some books," said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, public relations director for West Coast Chabad and the driving force behind the campaign. "These books represent the soul and fight of the Jewish people for so many years. It might mean nothing to the Russians right now, but it means everything to Chabad and the entire Jewish community."
The collection consists of 12,000 books and 30,000 manuscripts that date back to the origins of the Chabad movement that began 250 years ago and swept through Russia. Soon afterward, its philosophy of accepting Judaism through wisdom, comprehension and knowledge spread to surrounding countries, and today Chabad is the largest organization within the Jewish faith.
The archive was left behind in 1915, when Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson, the fifth of the Chabad rabbis, escaped just prior to Germany's World War I invasion. Schneerson left the collection in Moscow for safekeeping, but the Bolshevik Revolution prevented his return to recover the texts. In 1924, the former Soviet Union placed the archive in the state library.
The complaint was followed by a Jan. 19 statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She announced that the State Department will press the Russian Federation to return the texts to Chabad.
"We will very much push on those issues and issues of the Schneerson documents," Rice said.
Her statement came after members of both houses of Congress urged Russian President Vladmir V. Putin to return the texts to Chabad. Cunin worked closely with Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) in taking the organization's grievances to Capitol Hill.
Cunin's father, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad, was one of five rabbis assigned by the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and latest of the Chabad rabbis, to obtain and return the library to New York. Since then, Cunin and his two sons have championed the cause to retrieve the texts.
According to the complaint filed by Chabad's attorneys, Marshall Grossman, Seth Gerber and Jonathan Stern of Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan, the political efforts to retrieve the library have been going on for many years. In 1992, President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and then-Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) pressured the Russian Federation to return the contents of the library. At that time, all 100 members of the Senate wrote to then-President Boris Yeltsin, urging the Russian leader to fulfill his promise to return the texts.
In Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the documents be returned to Chabad, but the orders were ignored by the Russian library. At the end of that year, the United States certified that the Russian library was in violation of the Freedom Support Act by withholding documents from individuals in the United States. The act justified withholding funding from the Russian library until the texts were returned to Chabad.
Following the funding cut, both Yeltsin and Putin promised Chabad that the texts would be returned. Since then, there has been no significant action.
The case resurfaced when the Chabad organization recently learned about a second part of the collection captured from the Nazis by the Soviet army and stored at the Russian State Military Archive after World War II, Gerber said. Upon this discovery, Chabad renewed its efforts to obtain the texts at both the Russian library -- the texts that were originally sought -- and the newly discovered collection at the military archive.
Though Chabad's headquarters are in Brooklyn, the organization filed suit in California, making the legal procedure more convenient for Cunin, a Southern California resident, and the Russian Federation, which has a significant number of legal contacts in the area, according to Stern. If and when the texts are returned, however, they will be housed at the Chabad Library in New York.
"These are crucial and critical pieces authored by the founders of the movement who have since died," Stern said. "It is the equivalent to having the original documents written by the founders of America stored in another country without having access to them."
The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said it is not dealing with the issue, but made reference to its San Francisco consulate, which did not return calls on the case.
"This issue can be looked at as a litmus test to Russia," Cunin said. "The Jewish community has sustained so many atrocities under communist regime, and now we are really putting the pressure on them to prove whether or not they believe in religious and cultural freedom."