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November 28, 2003 - Image 27

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-11-28

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Russian Roots

Whose Books?

Russian library launches Jewish room,

but some of its contents stir controversy.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency



new Jewish book room at
Russia's main public library
has opened — but the room
has created controversy even
before receiving its first patrons.
The room was inaugurated in
September at the Russian State Library,
one of the world's largest book deposi-
A leading Jewish academic praised
the new facility, which is housed in
what was formerly known as the Lenin
"Until now, anyone doing scholarly
Jewish research in Moscow had to leave
Moscow to do it," said Arkady
Kovelman, director of the Center for
Jewish Studies and Jewish Civilization
at Moscow State University.
"The library will contribute toward
the growth of Jewish education and
Jewish knowledge in the former Soviet
The Jewish library collection includes
some 40,000 volumes in Hebrew,
about 20,000 books in Yiddish and a
few tides in Ladino, said Meri
Trifonenko, head of the center.
But Chabad-Lubavitch is outraged
by the new project because it includes
the well-known Schneerson book col-
lection, which belonged to a succession
of Lubavitcher rabbis.
Since 1990, the Lubavitch move-
ment has b-ten trying to free the collec-
tion, which the Bolsheviks seized in the
. The fate of the Schneerson books is
"the most passionate issue in the
Chabad movement," said Rabbi
Avraham Berkowitz, executive director
of the Federation of Jewish
Communities of Russia, a Lubavitch-
dominated umbrella group and the
largest community organization of
Russian Jews.
"How can the public have access to
these holy books unless they are
returned to the Jewish community?"
Rabbi Berkowitz said.
"These books are worthless as
books," he added. But "they have a
great spiritual value to 200,000
Lubavitchers around the world."
In the dozen years since the collapse

of Communism, Russia has returned
30 books from the collection to the
Lubavitch movement — mostly under
various arrangements with U.S. offi-
Victor Fedorov, the Russian State
Library director-general, told JTA that
taking into account Jewish religious
concerns — and especially the sensitive
issue of the Schneerson books — the
library set aside a separate room adja-
cent to its new Hebrew reading room
that will be used exclusively by readers
of the books from the Lubavitch collec-
But a Moscow-based rabbi, who has
been locally leading the effort to release
the books, said this made no difference.
The old Lenin Library "has been and
still remains a prison for the Jewish
books. It will remain a prison until .
they return the books of the rebbe,"
said Rabbi Yitzhak Kogan, who is a
Moscow representative of Agudas
Chasidei Chabad-Lubavitch of the
Former Soviet Union, a group that was
appointed by the last Lubavitcher
Rebbe, Menachem Mendel
Schneerson, with the goal of freeing
the books.
The new room is a project of the
state, which reached out to the Jewish
Academic Library to help manage it,
according to the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee. The Jewish
Academic Library is supported by the
JDC, the Russian Jewish Congress,
Moscow State University and the
Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"There is a great value" in making
available "these books that have been
hidden from the public for so many
years," said Scott Richman, director of
JDC's Russia desk.
The most valuable part of the
Russian State Library Judaica collection
formerly belonged to the Gunzburg
family, a succession of Russian Jewish
aristocrats that amassed one of the
world's largest collections of antique
Judaica books. The collection was
nationalized by the Soviets after the
family fled Russia following the 1917
Bolshevik revolution.
Heirs of the family in the United
States have recently explored with
Russian authorities the possibility of
getting the books back, a source famil-
iar with the situation said.


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