A Court Decision in a Century-Old Battle for a Library
By Michael Stillman
A decision came down early last month from the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., concerning an almost century-old dispute for ownership of a library consisting of some 12,000 books and 25,000 handwritten pages of personal writings and teachings. It is a story filled with intrigue. It involves Communists and Nazis, the Russians and the Americans, revolution and war, confiscations and thefts, and an ultra-orthodox religious group for whom the material is sacred texts. It's questionable whether the court decision will even make a difference, as the defendant may simply ignore it. Decisions are one thing, enforcement another.
The story begins in the late 18th century in the small Russian village of Lyubavichi or Lubavitch. A mystical, very orthodox Jewish community formed in this village. The first of their line of seven Rebbes (a rabbi who is also a noted leader or scholar) began this collection of sacred materials. The collection was built through a succession of Rebbes during the 19th century. However, by the time of the fifth Rebbe, in the early 20th century, anti-Jewish pogroms were spreading across Russia. Major waves of Jewish immigrants came to America during this period. The Rebbe and his loyal followers stayed.
In 1917, matters went from bad to worse with the Bolshevik Revolution. The Communists tried to suppress religion and shut down the group's schools. Now under the sixth Rebbe, the movement persisted. In 1925, the Communists seized the library. The Rebbe refused to budge. He authorized clandestine schools to keep the faith alive. Finally, the exasperated Communists tried him and sentenced the Rebbe to death. International outrage forced the Soviets to suspend the sentence, and the Rebbe and his followers were finally forced into exile. While the library was now in the Soviets' hands, most of the handwritten material was still under the Rebbe's control. It went with him, first to Latvia, then to Poland.
From there, things went from worse to worst. Poland was invaded by the Nazis in 1939. While he helped others to escape, the Rebbe himself again would not leave. However, the situation rapidly became untenable, and with help from the United States, he was given diplomatic status and allowed to go to America. This time, he was forced to leave the manuscript items behind. He set up shop in Brooklyn, New York, the group now known as Chabad-Lubavitch, a very Orthodox Jewish community that takes its name from their original home in Russia.
After the death of the sixth Rebbe in 1950, leadership of the "Lubavitchers" fell to his son-in-law, Menachem Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe. The group grew and became more visible under Rabbi Schneerson in the 1960s and 1970s. Jews generally do not evangelize to outsiders (Paul was an exception), but the Lubavitchers actively sought out other Jews to join their community. To outsiders, they may have appeared as the Jewish equivalent of the Amish. Their dress looks more like something out of another century, but while following strictly interpreted religious laws, they are more likely to be involved in modern science, medicine, or commerce than to be found behind a horse-drawn plow. By the 1980s, the group had spread around the country and world, and Rabbi Schneerson achieved almost mythical status within the community. For some he was a great prophet, but many saw him as the Messiah. Some did not believe he could die, or if he did, he would quickly return. The Rebbe died in 1994, at the age of 92, and many still await his return as the Messiah. No successor, or eighth Rebbe, has ever been selected.