Historic artifacts from Eastern European Jewish communities seized in New York
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Historic artifacts from Eastern European Jewish communities seized in New York

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An auction house was preparing to sell 17 burial scrolls and manuscripts stolen from Eastern European Jewish communities during World War II before they were seized by New York investigators, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office said Thursday.

“The recovery of these 19th-century scrolls and manuscripts stolen during the Holocaust from Romania, Hungary, Ukraine and Slovakia… is the culmination of a long cultural property investigation, and we are fortunate to be able to return these items to their rightful Jewish communities,” Peter Fitzhugh of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.

Investigators learned in February 2021 that a Brooklyn auction house had put the items up for sale.

The artifacts were rich in information dating from 1840 to the beginning of World War II: prayers for the deceased, community rules, names of religious leaders, and sometimes the names of community members who had been deported to Auschwitz.

The sale was suspended at the request of the Jewish community in the Romanian city of Cluj and the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

This organisation, created after the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, specialises in the restitution of stolen Jewish property.

Among the items found was a bound book from Cluj, which had a large pre-war Jewish community.

According to court documents, investigators found mention of the document in a book published in Cluj in 1936, but no trace of it after the Holocaust, suggesting that it was stolen from its owners.

Given the lack of any documentation, “these scrolls and manuscripts could not legitimately have been imported into the United States,” the statement said.

A total of 17 scrolls and manuscripts were seized from the specialist auction house Kestenbaum & Company.

Although the auction house cooperated with the judicial authorities, investigators preferred to seize the objects for fear that it might be tempted to sell them.

“There are buyers all over the world for these items, which can be easily sold or transferred and thus frustrate government efforts to return them to the survivors and descendants of these communities,” they said in a court filing.

The prosecutor’s office gave no indication of when the objects might be returned.

The Brussels Times