Look, but Don’t Touch: Moscow’s Schneerson Collection Goes Online

June 27, 2017

Source: Times of Israel 


In 1922, a few years before he fled the Soviet Union, the sixth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson petitioned the Russian government to return 35 crates of books they had seized years earlier. The books had been passed down to his father, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneerson, by his grandfather and had belonged collectively to generations of Lubavitch Hasidim going back to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, who began the collection in the 18th century. The Soviet government did not return the books, and for almost a century they remained on the shelves of the Lenin public library in Moscow. But this month the Russian State Library will finish scanning and putting online the more than 4,500 books in the Schneerson Collection, making them accessible to everyone in the world at the click of a mouse.

These contested books are claimed by both the United States and Russia, with each side demanding that the other pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for failing to return them. The dispute goes back to World War I, when Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson (the fifth Chabad rabbi) and his son Yosef Schneerson fled the village of Lyubavichi in the face of advancing German troops and placed the books in storage in Moscow.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chabad sued the Russian government in an American court for the return of the books, and in 2013 an American judge ruled that Russia should pay a fine of $50,000 per day for failing to do so.

Yet the Russian government did take a step toward a resolution of the matter when they invited a Chabad librarian to Moscow to pick out the books that had belonged to the Schneerson family. He selected the 4,651 books, which were moved from the Russian State Library to the special Schneerson Collection at the recently opened Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.

However, the manuscripts, letters, documents and family photographs of the Schneersons were not handed over to the Jewish Museum. Allegedly, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson left these letters and documents behind in Poland when he fled to America during World War II, and they ended up in the hands of the Nazis. When the Soviet Union won the war, the Red Army took them to Moscow. The letters are currently kept at the Russian State Military Historical Archive in Moscow, and have all been scanned, but are not yet accessible online.

So far, only the published books from the Schneerson Collection have been made available online, but they are already being used by researchers outside of Russia. For example, a project at Columbia University in New York is studying the movement of early Jewish books based on inscriptions in them.

The Schneerson Collection can be viewed online by visiting the site of the Russian State Library, clicking on “Digital Catalogue”. The collection can be searched through in either Hebrew or Russian.

Read the entire article in Times of Israel.

Updated: Jun. 28, 2017