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US judge orders Russia to preserve Jewish texts

world Updated: Jan 23, 2009 00:52 IST

A federal judge is ordering Russia to preserve sacred religious documents that members of a Hasidic Jewish movement are suing to recover and fear could be headed to the black market. Members of Chabad-Lubavitch, which follows the teachings of generations of Eastern European rabbis and emphasizes the study of the Torah, is suing Russia in U.S. courts to recover thousands of manuscripts, prayers, lectures and philosophical discourses by leading rabbis dating from the 18th century.

The attorney for the movement, Nathan Lewin, said he happened to be in Israel last month when he heard that pages from the handwritten archive were shown to an expert in Jerusalem. The expert, a former university librarian, confirmed their authenticity and was led to believe that they were on the verge of being offered for sale to collectors.

The collection, which Chabad says totals 12,000 books and 50,000 rare documents, is being held in the Russian State Military Archives. Lewin said it has been Chabad's worst fear that the documents were not being cared for properly by the Russians and could end up missing.

The collection was formerly held by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, a leader of Chabad-Lubavitch. He was born in Russia but the Soviet government forced him to leave in 1927. He took the documents to Latvia and later Poland, but left them behind when the Nazis invaded. The collection was seized and taken to Germany, then recovered by the Soviet Army in 1945.

Lewin met with the expert in Jerusalem and then asked U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to order Russia to allow a delegation from Chabad to inspect the collection at the Russian library and ensure that they are being properly secured. He said it is unclear who took the documents to the expert, representatives of the Russian government or someone who may have taken the papers from the archives because of "sloppy" maintenance there. Lamberth said he was issuing a temporary restraining order on Thursday, ordering Russia to protect any removal of documents from the collection and return any that may already have been taken. He also warned Russia that the government faces a default ruling if it does not get new lawyers to represent them in the U.S. court. The law firm representing Russia has asked to withdraw from the case because they say their client has not paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills and no longer communicates with them. They say government representatives have refused to take their calls, respond to memos about the case or see an attorney who traveled to Moscow for a face-to-face meeting.

Lamberth told Chabad that he did not think that he could order a sovereign government like Russia to accept foreigners into the country and encouraged them to explore other methods of reviewing the collection, such as hiring attorneys already in Moscow. Lamberth agreed to take the case in U.S. court because he said both the Nazi seizure and the Russian government's appropriation of the archives violated international law.

Members of Chabad also say that they are asking the Obama administration to intervene to get the documents returned.