Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2010 Issue

A Court Decision in a Century-Old Battle for a Library

Chabadpravda

Photo of Hassidim, presumably Lubavitchers, from Pravda.


By Michael Stillman

A decision came down early last month from the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., concerning an almost century-old dispute for ownership of a library consisting of some 12,000 books and 25,000 handwritten pages of personal writings and teachings. It is a story filled with intrigue. It involves Communists and Nazis, the Russians and the Americans, revolution and war, confiscations and thefts, and an ultra-orthodox religious group for whom the material is sacred texts. It's questionable whether the court decision will even make a difference, as the defendant may simply ignore it. Decisions are one thing, enforcement another.

The story begins in the late 18th century in the small Russian village of Lyubavichi or Lubavitch. A mystical, very orthodox Jewish community formed in this village. The first of their line of seven Rebbes (a rabbi who is also a noted leader or scholar) began this collection of sacred materials. The collection was built through a succession of Rebbes during the 19th century. However, by the time of the fifth Rebbe, in the early 20th century, anti-Jewish pogroms were spreading across Russia. Major waves of Jewish immigrants came to America during this period. The Rebbe and his loyal followers stayed.

In 1917, matters went from bad to worse with the Bolshevik Revolution. The Communists tried to suppress religion and shut down the group's schools. Now under the sixth Rebbe, the movement persisted. In 1925, the Communists seized the library. The Rebbe refused to budge. He authorized clandestine schools to keep the faith alive. Finally, the exasperated Communists tried him and sentenced the Rebbe to death. International outrage forced the Soviets to suspend the sentence, and the Rebbe and his followers were finally forced into exile. While the library was now in the Soviets' hands, most of the handwritten material was still under the Rebbe's control. It went with him, first to Latvia, then to Poland.

From there, things went from worse to worst. Poland was invaded by the Nazis in 1939. While he helped others to escape, the Rebbe himself again would not leave. However, the situation rapidly became untenable, and with help from the United States, he was given diplomatic status and allowed to go to America. This time, he was forced to leave the manuscript items behind. He set up shop in Brooklyn, New York, the group now known as Chabad-Lubavitch, a very Orthodox Jewish community that takes its name from their original home in Russia.

After the death of the sixth Rebbe in 1950, leadership of the "Lubavitchers" fell to his son-in-law, Menachem Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe. The group grew and became more visible under Rabbi Schneerson in the 1960s and 1970s. Jews generally do not evangelize to outsiders (Paul was an exception), but the Lubavitchers actively sought out other Jews to join their community. To outsiders, they may have appeared as the Jewish equivalent of the Amish. Their dress looks more like something out of another century, but while following strictly interpreted religious laws, they are more likely to be involved in modern science, medicine, or commerce than to be found behind a horse-drawn plow. By the 1980s, the group had spread around the country and world, and Rabbi Schneerson achieved almost mythical status within the community. For some he was a great prophet, but many saw him as the Messiah. Some did not believe he could die, or if he did, he would quickly return. The Rebbe died in 1994, at the age of 92, and many still await his return as the Messiah. No successor, or eighth Rebbe, has ever been selected.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Francis Scott Key, <i>Star Spangled Banner,</i> first printing, c. 1814-16. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. “O. Henry,” archive of drawings made to illustrate a lost mining memoir, c. 1883-84. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> [Bay Psalm Book], printed for Hezekiah Usher of Boston, Cambridge, c. 1648-65. $50,000 to $75,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Noticia estraordinario,</i> probable first announcement in Mexico City of the fall of the Alamo, 1836. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Patrick Gass, first edition of earliest first-hand account of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Pittsburgh, 1807. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Diploma from the Princeton Class of 1783, commencement attended by Washington & Continental Congress. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Sprague Light Cavalry!</i> color-printed broadside, NY, 1863. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>The Lincoln & Johnson Union Campaign Songster,</i> Philadelphia, 1864. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Lucy Parsons, labor organizer, albumen cabinet card, New York, 1886. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Daniel L.F. Swift, journal as third mate on a Pacific Whaling voyage, 1848-1850. $3,000 to $4,0000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Two photos of Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon, silver prints, 1901. $1,500 to $2,500.

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