More than 76 years after the Kristallnacht pogroms, a pair of Torah finials plundered by the Nazis from a Vienna synagogue was returned to a relative of their original owners on Wednesday by a local auction house that had been on the verge of selling them off.
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Not long before a Judaica auction scheduled for last month, Meron Eren, one of the owners of the Kedem Auction House in Jerusalem, got a disturbing email, asking him to halt the auction of the silver Torah finials — ornaments mounted on the staves of the Torah scroll, known in Hebrew as rimonim – which appeared in the auction’s catalog.
The finials were listed as originating in Vienna from the early 20th century, engraved with a dedication from 1930 by David and Beila Lessing in memory of their son, who had died that year. The email came from Hannah Lessing, who said the finials belonged to her family and had been looted by the Nazis from a Vienna synagogue during the massive pogroms that took place on November 9-10, 1938 that became known as Kristallnacht.
She said she knew the finials were to be sold in good faith and asked to buy them at the opening price of $1,000. Kedem agreed to sell them to her at that price, without the commission it generally takes on such sales. On Wednesday, the finials were given to Lessing, who had come from Austria to retrieve them.
Lessing, 52, is intimately familiar with the restoration of Jewish property in her capacity as director of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, as well as Austria’s General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism. She is the daughter of Erich Lessing, a photographer associated with Magnum photos, who left Vienna when the Nazis came to power and came to pre-state Israel, where he joined the British army as a photographer. After the war he returned to Austria and worked for the Associated Press; he joined Magnum Photos in 1951 and documented much of postwar Europe. His mother was murdered in Auschwitz.
So how did the looted silver Torah adornments end up with an Israeli auction house? When Kedem’s Eren realized that the item was “problematic,” he contacted the Israeli art dealer who had deposited the item with him. It turned out that the item belonged to a British collector who had decided to sell his Judaica collection.
“It’s not a stolen item,” Eren says. “The collector had purchased it entirely in good faith, as happens all the time. He could not have determined that the item had been looted in 1938.”
The finials had belonged to a relative that Lessing referred to as “rich Uncle David.” The family had donated the finials and several other items from its collection to the Viennese Jewish community, and they were apparently in use at the synagogue from which they were stolen.
“The looters took everything, particularly small silver items,” Lessing says. “But I wonder why they preserved them. After all, this is such a Jewish item.” Now she is trying to find out how the British collector got hold of them.
She was excited to inform her 91-year-old father of her discovery. “I’m bringing you back the family rimonim,” she said she told him. “Put them near the hanukkiah.”