Soon We'll Be Able to Look at a Treasure That the Russians Have Kept From Israel for 100 Years

The Günzburg collection contains over 14,000 items, including thousands of rare Hebrew books, as well as manuscripts in Hebrew and many other languages

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"Magid Davar" (Folklore), Ancona (Italy) 1550.
"Magid Davar" (Folklore), Ancona (Italy) 1550.Credit: Russian State Library
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Günzburg Collection, one of the most important collections of Jewish books and manuscripts in the world, which is kept in the Russian State Library in Moscow, will be digitized and made accessible to the general public by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, a historic agreement will be signed between the National Library and its counterpart in Moscow. The agreement is a significant milestone in the contacts between the two institutions, which began exactly 100 years ago, when the National Library was still the Beit Hasfarim Haleumi.

The signing ceremony, which will take place on Tuesday in the National Library, will be attended by dignitaries from both sides, but the significant achievement and the celebrations surrounding it also conceal an Israeli defeat, at least a temporary one, namely, the failure to gain possession of the collection.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently admitted that fact indirectly, when he said: “Without detracting from the demand to regain possession of the collection, we asked in the first stage to cooperate on the digitization of the collection in order to afford scholars high-quality access to these important materials.”

The director of the Russian State Library, Vladimir Gnezdilov, is quoted in a National Library press release as saying: “Modern information technology has opened new and unlimited possibilities for accessing the cultural values of countries and their peoples.”

The Günzburg collection is a rich and unique collection of books and manuscripts that contains over 14,000 items, including thousands of rare Hebrew books, as well as manuscripts in Hebrew and many other languages. It includes medieval works in science, philosophy and Jewish studies, midrashim, copies of the writings of Maimonides and the Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet), biblical commentaries, books of Hebrew grammar and halakha (religious law), medieval poetry, Kabbalistic and medical texts.

The collection was put together by three generations of an aristocratic Russian-Jewish family beginning in the mid-19th century. In the early 20th century it was considered one of the most important Judaica collections in the world. “There’s no question that even today the collection is a national cultural treasure for the Jewish people,” says Dr. Aviad Stollman of the National Library.

In 1917 a contract was signed for the purchase of the collection, between the Beit Hasfarim Haleumi and the Russian authorities. Half a million gold rubles were transferred to the Russians (about $15 million according to today’s gold value) – through donations by Russian Zionists..

The books had already been placed in cartons in preparation for their dispatch to Palestine, but delivery was delayed due to World War I. With the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution the books were seized, nationalized and transferred to the Lenin State Library in Moscow. Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann and later Benjamin Netanyahu tried in vain to persuade the Russians to return the collection.

The Evronot, Book of Intercalations, from the Guenzburg collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts and books at the library in Moscow, Russia November 7, 2017. Credit: TATYANA MAKEYEVA/REUTERS
Russian billionaire Ziyavudin Magomedov at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2017. Credit: Tsafrir Abayov/AP
A Passover hagadah from the Günzburg Collection, 1725.Credit: Russian State Library

In recent years Israel has broached the subject during official meetings with senior officials in Russia, with the involvement of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Netanyahu, and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Israel sent Russia documents showing proof of ownership of the collection, in the hope that the warming of relations between the countries would also bring an end to this affair.

Netanyahu even spoke about it several times with President Vladimir Putin, but a few years ago he realized that for now there is no chance of receiving the collection, and therefore he advised the National Library to advance a digitization project without deciding, at this point, on ownership of the collection. That paved the way to the agreement being signed this week.

The digitization project was funded by the Peri Foundation, headed by Ziyavudin Magomedov, a Russian Muslim billionaire businessman from Dagestan, who is active in cultural preservation. In the past he contributed to a project to preserve the mosque in Kala Koreysh in Dagestan.

The collection will be accessible on the website Ktiv, on which the National Library has posted tens of thousands of rare manuscripts.

Passover Hagada, Frankfurt am Main (Germany) 1725.Credit: Russian State Library

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