Jewish funeral records among items seized by US authorities

A historical register of Jewish burial records in the modern Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca is among the artefacts that were recovered in a seizure by authorities in New York who plan to return the items to their communities of origin.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn on Thursday announced the seizure of 17 funeral scrolls, manuscripts and other Jewish documents, which they describe as having been taken from Jewish communities in Romania, Hungary, Ukraine and Slovakia during World War II.

“In the absence of any provenance or transport documentation from survivors of these communities, there is no legitimate means by which the manuscripts and scrolls could have been imported into the United States,” the bureau said. of the American prosecutor in Brooklyn in his announcement of the seizure.

Jacquelyn Kasulis, the acting US lawyer, said in a statement that the articles were “illegally confiscated during the Holocaust” and contained “invaluable historical information”.

All of the items had been offered for sale earlier this year by Kestenbaum & Company, a Brooklyn auction house specializing in Judaism, authorities said. The New York Times reported in February that the auction house had offered and then removed 17 items from sale, including the burial register. This withdrawal took place following demands from a restitution organization and leaders of the Jewish community in Romania.

In an affidavit submitted to the court as part of a search warrant application, Megan Buckley, a special agent for the Department of Homeland Security, wrote that Kestenbaum & Company offered 21 manuscripts, scrolls and other items for sale. She added that almost all of them had disappeared or were allegedly “confiscated by individuals or entities” who had no legal rights over them, whether during or immediately after the Holocaust.

“They represent invaluable religious cultural artefacts that should be properly returned to the survivors of their original Jewish communities,” Buckley wrote.

Buckley also wrote in the affidavit, dated July 20, that 17 of the 21 items were believed to be in the possession of an anonymous person on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who had put them up for sale.

Shortly after Kestenbaum & Company put items up for sale, a genealogy researcher noticed one in particular, a handwritten burial register in Hebrew and Yiddish known as Pinkas Klali D’Chevra Kadisha.

The researcher told the article to Robert Schwartz, president of the Jewish community in Cluj. Next, the Cluj community and the World Jewish Restitution Organization called for the sale to be stopped, with Schwartz citing the record’s historical value and telling the auction house that it had been “illegally appropriated by people who have not been identified ”.

Kestenbaum & Company granted the request, telling the New York Times in an email message: “We consider the title issue to be of the utmost importance. The person who auctioned the items – described by the auction house as a “learned businessman” who had acted for years to preserve the historic artifacts – agreed to discuss the matter further with the auctioneer. ‘restitution organization, the auction house added.

“Our client saved these historic documents at a time when they were tragically abandoned in countries which, as state policy, were actively suppressing both Jewish memory of the past as well as freedom of expression of the handful of surviving Jews still residing in these Communist Lands, ”said Daniel E. Kestenbaum, the auction house’s chairman, in an email, adding that the company supports the actions of the US attorney’s office to resolve the issue. problem.

Law enforcement officials learned of the scheduled February sale and contacted the auction house and the shipper. While Kestenbaum & Company cooperated with an investigation into the artifacts, Buckley wrote in his affidavit, the auction house had sold one or more items before being contacted by law enforcement.

Buckley added that while the person who put the items up for auction was also cooperating, officials feared it might not last.

“The sender has repeatedly expressed that he believes he should be compensated for having the manuscripts and scrolls, which contributes to the government’s fears of a possible liquidation,” she wrote. “Indeed, the sender has expressly stated on several occasions its intention to sell the manuscripts and scrolls to international buyers.”

The material seized by the government includes archives of cities decimated during the Holocaust. The US attorney’s office said members of the communities from which the scrolls and manuscripts were extracted “were rounded up in ghettos, dispossessed of their property and deported to Nazi death camps, where the majority of between them were killed “.

Schwartz, who is a Holocaust survivor, was born hiding in a basement after his pregnant mother escaped the city ghetto.

“Very few community memberships have survived WWII,” he told The Times earlier this year, calling the burial register “very valuable to the history of our community.”

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