Family Seeks Compensation From Israel Museum Over 'Holocaust-looted' 14th-century Haggadah

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Eli and Shuli Barzilai hold a copy of the Birds' Head Haggadah in his house in Jerusalem.
Eli and Shuli Barzilai hold a copy of the Birds' Head Haggadah in his house in Jerusalem.Credit: Dan Balilty, AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The descendents of a well-known German-Jewish politician have launched a restitution claim against the Israel Museum, saying that a rare Haggadah on display in Jerusalem was stolen from their family by the Nazis.

The museum is waiting for the family to send it historical documents verifying its ownership claims on the Passover prayer book, which reached Jerusalem after World War II, so a decision can be made regarding its fate.

The Haggadah in question is the so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah, which was published in Germany in the 14th century. The manuscript is illustrated with people with birds’ heads. It eventually ended up in the hands of Ludwig Marum, a Jew who served as the justice minister in Baden, Germany. His descendants claim that he received the Haggadah as a wedding gift from his bride’s family. He was arrested and murdered by the Nazis in 1934.

The subsequent immediate fate of the Haggadah is not known, but after the war it arrived in Israel, reaching the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and then the Israel Museum, where it is now displayed.

The museum’s website states that “the Haggadah was owned by Ludwig and Johanna Marum, Karlsruhe, Germany, until the Nazis came to power.” It is unknown who owned it after that or whether the Nazis took it as loot.

The museum’s website describes the manuscript as the oldest illustrated Ashkenazi Haggadah that survived intact as a separate book. No one knows why birds’ heads were used in the prayer book. Some researchers say it stemmed from the prohibition on making graven images. Others claim it was an anti-Semitic document deriding Jews.

Marum’s grandson, Eli Barzilai, 75, lives in Jerusalem. He told The Associated Press that “this is a priceless and rare document.” Barzilai received legal advice from renowned U.S. attorney Randol Schoenberg, who specializes in recovering looted or stolen artworks. The two met at a lecture Schoenberg delivered at the museum last year. He was the museum’s guest of honor at the local premiere of “Woman in Gold,” a film that described Maria Altmann’s struggle to retrieve a portrait of her aunt, painted by Gustav Klimt and stolen from her family during the Holocaust. Schoenberg succeeded in retrieving the painting for the family.

Family representatives and museum officials will meet after the Passover holiday. The family has told AP that it doesn’t wish to get the manuscript back, but wants to be recognized as its owner and to receive some financial compensation for it.

Museum Director James Snyder told Haaretz that the museum treats these cases seriously and with sensitivity. “Our first step will be a face-to-face meeting. That’s the best way to work together in order to get a clear picture of the past, which is often difficult to discern.”

The museum prides itself on acting to trace artwork and objects looted by the Nazis that have ended up at the museum. In recent years, the museum has returned 18 artefacts that were stolen from Jews during the Holocaust to their owners. Three others are currently being studied.

The struggle of Jewish families trying to reclaim art treasures looted by the Nazis has been making headlines in recent years. The topic has received extensive coverage and was further highlighted by the “Cornelius Gurlitt collection” in Germany. In that affair, a large collection of Nazi-looted loot included artwork belonging to Jewish families. Some of these pieces have already been returned to the legal heirs of their former owners.

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