Israel’s Attorney General Wants to Rescue a Holocaust Relic From Public Auction

A notebook with rabbinical rulings from the Bergen-Belsen refugee camp is considered primary evidence detailing victims' fate

Ofer Aderet
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A spread from the Bergen-Belsen DP camp notebook detailing rabbinical rulings for Holocaust survivors.
A spread from the Bergen-Belsen DP camp notebook detailing rabbinical rulings for Holocaust survivors. Credit: Kedem Auction House
Ofer Aderet

Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit appealed to a court on Wednesday for an order to stop a Holocaust-era relic from being offered for sale at a public auction.

Mendelblit wants the item – a notebook containing rabbinical court rulings from the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp – to be preserved at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial instead. The appeal urges the Jerusalem District Court to declare the notebook a “public relic.”

Kedem Auction House had planned to put the notebook up for auction last year. If the appeal is granted, it could set a precedent for other relics of historic national value for Israel, which are currently not protected from being bought and sold on the private market.

The notebook contains rulings that release women with missing husbands from their marriages. In halakha, or Jewish religious law, a woman is only granted a get, or a religious bill of divorce, if there is enough evidence of her husband’s death. According to halakha, she cannot remarry without one.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the Knesset, May 17, 2020.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the Knesset, May 17, 2020.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

The Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp established a rabbinical court for the purpose of granting these agunot, or “chained women,” a bill of divorce so they could start new families. The rabbinical rulings helped survivors whose husbands disappeared during the Holocaust, or where the evidence of their deaths didn’t meet halakhic standards.

The Bergen-Belsen displaced persons center was Europe’s largest, and around 3,000 weddings were held there. The notebook that originated there painstakingly documented the decisions of the rabbinical court.

These types of notebooks, known as “notebooks releasing agunot,” were used by rabbinical courts in refugee camps after World War II. They are seen as primary evidence made soon after the events of the Holocaust that details the fates of certain Holocaust victims.

Mendelblit’s appeal follows a lawsuit filed in December by an organization representing refugees from the camp who are seeking to recover the notebook and have it handed over to a state institution for preservation rather than being auctioned off. Their lawsuit followed media reports that the notebook had been found and was being put up for auction by Kedem at a starting price of $4,000.

The court issued a restraining order on the auction and Mendelblit has now decided to step in and have the notebook classified as a state relic. His request to the Jerusalem District Court says that “this notebook is clearly a public asset, an irreplaceable cultural asset for the Jewish people and all of humanity.”

The Justice Ministry said the request is “another element of a general concept behind the attorney general’s policies of combined action of legal advice and legislation by state prosecutors to defend and preserve national cultural icons of the State of Israel.”

A page from the Bergen-Belsen DP camp notebook detailing rabbinical rulings for Holocaust survivors.
A page from the Bergen-Belsen DP camp notebook detailing rabbinical rulings for Holocaust survivors.Credit: Kedem Auction House

Attorneys David Fuhrer and Limor Levy, representing the refugees from the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons center, welcomed the decision. “We hope that thanks to such actions, other important documents will find their way to establishments such as Yad Vashem,” they said.

The courts have other pending cases about legal disputes over trade in historic items of national value or importance. Among them are letters that Polish children sent to Israel before they were murdered in the Holocaust. These wound up in the hands of Dudi Zilbershlag, an ultra-Orthodox businessman and manuscripts dealer.

The Kafka archives were rescued from private hands in a similar fashion. The case involving the handwritten works of the famous Jewish author was decided in 2012 when they were ordered to be transferred from private hands to the National Library of Israel so they could be preserved by a public establishment for posterity.

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