Important new evidence regarding the Soviet persecution of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, has come to light as a result of the lawsuit filed by Chabad in U.S. federal court to reclaim the Schneerson Collection from Russia.
As the world celebrates the 12th of Tammuz — the anniversary of Rabbi Schneersohn’s release from exile in 1927 — long-hidden facts have been revealed concerning both the Rebbe’s death sentence and the plight of the sacred Jewish texts.
“We’ve successfully obtained deposition testimony under oath from high-ranking Russian Federation government officials, which is noteworthy in itself,” said Chabad’s attorney, Marshall B. Grossman of Alschuler Grossman Stein and Kahan, LLP. “The testimony and documents required to be produced provide a rare and unprecedented unveiling of the persecution of Chabad leadership at the hands of the former Soviet Union.”
The documents reveal Soviet plans to execute Rabbi Schneersohn in 1927 by firing squad. The charge against the Sixth Rebbe was “counter-revolutionary activities,” and his "crime" was founding an underground education network that helped Judaism survive Communist suppression of religion. “This is the first time that the nature of the criminal charges against Rabbi Schneersohn and the proposed method of his execution have been officially disclosed,” said Grossman. The Rebbe's death sentence was later commuted amid global protests, and he was released from jail and eventually from exile.
New information was also revealed about the history of the Library and Archive that together comprise the Schneersohn Collection. The newly released materials include Soviet government papers granting Rabbi Schneersohn permission to leave the USSR with the Archive, and documents verifying that the Red Army took the Archive in 1945 as “trophy documents” from a German castle that had been under Gestapo control during World War II. The Red Army moved the Archive to Moscow, where it was placed in a “Special Archive,” studied by the NKVD and KGB, and kept secret for decades. Russian Federation officials admit that the Archive has never been nationalized. In documents previously provided to the United States government and the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Russia has characterized the Schneerson Collection as a Russian national treasure.
“When one realizes how Russia came to possess the Collection, hid its existence for years, and disclosed its history only through a required court process, it is difficult to understand how they can claim it as their treasure,” said Rabbi Joseph I. Aronov, director of Chabad Lubavitch in Israel and member of Agudas Chasidei Chabad authorized by the Rebbe to secure the return of the Collection.
The Soviets took physical possession of the Schneersohn Library around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Schneersohn Archive was taken by the Nazis during World War II before being taken by the Red Army. For decades, Chabad has worked tirelessly to secure the return of its sacred texts. In 1990, the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, designated the late Dr. Nissan Mindel, Rabbi Joseph I. Aronov, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, Rabbi Isaac Kogan, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Levinson and Professor Veronika Irina to obtain the return of the Library to Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters in New York.
In 1991, Chabad prevailed in litigation in the former Soviet Union in its efforts to recover the Library. But a later decree, issued shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, purported to reverse the court decision. After exhausting all other avenues, Chabad had no option but to file suit in the United States under the expropriation exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Depositions have been now taken from Russian Federation witnesses including Assistant Professor of Constitutional Law at Moscow State University, Tatiana Kovaleva; Director of the Russian State Military Archive, Vladimir N. Kouzlenkov; General Director of the Russian State Library, Victor V. Fedorov; and Deputy Minister of the Russian Ministry of Culture and Mass Communication, Leonid N. Nadirov. On July 14, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California declined to rule on motions to dismiss the case that had been filed by the Russian defendants. Instead, the federal court in California transferred the case in the interests of justice to the federal court in Washington, DC, which was considered a more appropriate venue for this important matter.
Chabad’s struggle to secure the return of the Schneerson Collection has gathered unprecedented bipartisan political support in Washington over the years. In the last six months alone, letters urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to return the Collection to its rightful owners were signed by all 100 U.S. Senators and more than 300 members of the U.S. Congress.
Also, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held public hearings on the plight of the Collection in April, and President Bush has raised the matter personally with Putin on multiple occasions.
Rabbi Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch and member of Agudas Chasidei Chabad authorized by the Rebbe to secure the return of the Collection, is pleased that the case will now be heard in Washington, DC.
“Just as Chabad supporters commemorate Rabbi Schneerson’s freedom from captivity this week, we are confident that judges in our nation’s capital will enable us to celebrate the release of the Schneerson Collection,” he said. “This treasure belongs to the Chabad community, which has its headquarters in the United States, and that is where it will be returned.”