State Renews Efforts to Bring Disputed Jewish Manuscripts From Russia

The State of Israel plans to renew its efforts to retrieve the world's second-largest collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts from Russia.

Various parties have been trying to bring the impressive Ginzburg collection to Israel for years. Now, they are hoping that renewed Russian-Israeli cooperation, primarily Israel's expected transfer of the Sergei building in Jerusalem to Russia, will enable the collection to be brought to Israel.

The noble Russian-Jewish Ginzburg family acquired its collection over three generations, beginning in the 1840s. The collection includes 14,000 books, 45 incunabula (books published in the 14th century at the start of the printing era), more than 2,000 Hebrew manuscripts and 1,000 Arabic manuscripts. It is considered the second largest collection of antique Jewish literature in the world, after the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Baron David Ginzburg, the last of the collectors, died in 1910. After his death, Zionist activists, including Eliezer Ben Yehuda, began trying to bring the collection to the land of Israel. In May 1917, the National Library in Jerusalem signed a contract with parties in Russia to buy the collection for half a million rubles. The acquisition was funded by donations from Russian Zionists, and when the money was delivered, the books and manuscripts were packed into crates to be delivered. But the shipment was delayed by World War I, and when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out, the Soviet authorities seized the books and sent them to the Lenin Library in Moscow.

Over the years, prominent Jews, including Albert Einstein, Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, and Foreign Ministry officials, tried to bring the Ginzburg collection to Israel, but their efforts were rejected. Now the heads of the Jewish National and University Library (Israel's official national library, which is located in Jerusalem), including director general Shmuel Har Noy and board chairman David Blumberg, are trying to put the matter on the public agenda.

The issue is being revisited mainly because of the advanced talks on the Sergei building, which was built circa 1890 adjacent to the Russian Compound. It was named for Prince Sergei, heir to Czar Nicholas II, who was executed by the Bolshevik revolutionaries. The building served as a hostel for Russian pilgrims to the holy land, and currently houses the offices of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Agriculture Ministry.

The Russian government is demanding ownership of the building, and the negotiations are nearing completion, to the Russians' satisfaction. Meanwhile, Har Noy and Blumberg have demanded of Foreign Ministry Director General Aaron Abramovich that the same principle apply to the Ginzburg collection - that the ministry demand the Ginzburg collection in exchange for the Sergei building. The ministry does not believe Russia will accede to this demand, but intends to try to retrieve the collection in any case.

In the 1990s, the Russians photographed a large part of the manuscripts and books in the collection and allowed scholars to study them, apparently in order to quiet the issue. The Lenin Library even built a splendid building in Moscow to preserve the collection.

"If the state is returning property to the Russian government, there is no reason that something we have proof that Russian Zionists purchased should not be returned to the state," said Har Noy.

The Foreign Ministry responded, "The ministry received the request concerning Baron Ginzburg's book collection, and the issue is under examination. In the coming days, Foreign Ministry officials will be meeting with representatives of the National Library in order to receive the data and documents on the matter."

The Ginzburg collection includes a translation of Dionysius Cato's "Moral Distichs," Yehuda ben Moshe Albotini's 1519 commentary on the Rambam's Mishneh Torah, a 1671 essay written by well-known kabbalist Shmuel ben Hiam Vital in Damascus, and one of the first six books printed in Hebrew, "Answers to Questions" by the Rashba, which was printed in Rome.

The National Library heads wish to make the collection a major exhibition at the new National Library building slated for construction in Jerusalem.