January 27, 2023

A historical directory of Jewish burial registers from what is now the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca is one of the artifacts recovered from a seizure by New York authorities planning to return the items to their communities of origin.

The federal prosecutor’s office in Brooklyn on Thursday announced the seizure of 17 Jewish burial rolls, manuscripts and other records that it believed were taken from Jewish communities in Romania, Hungary, Ukraine and Slovakia during World War II.

“Without any provenance or lore documentation from survivors from these communities, there is no legitimate means by which the manuscripts and scrolls could have been imported into the United States,” said the Brooklyn Attorney General in its announcement of the seizure.

Acting US attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said in a statement that the items “were illegally confiscated during the Holocaust” and contain “priceless historical information”.

All items had been put up for sale earlier this year by Kestenbaum & Company, a Brooklyn auction house specializing in Judaica, authorities said. The New York Times reported in February that the auction house offered 17 items, including the funeral register, and then withdrew them from sale. This withdrawal took place at the request of a restitution organization and the leadership of the Jewish community in Romania.

In an affidavit presented to the court as part of a search warrant, Megan Buckley, a special envoy for the Department of Homeland Security, wrote that Kestenbaum & Company had put 21 manuscripts, scrolls, and other items up for sale. She added that almost all of them had disappeared or were believed to have been “confiscated by individuals or bodies” who had no legal claim to them during or shortly after the Holocaust.

“They constitute invaluable cultural religious artifacts that should be duly returned to the survivors of their original Jewish communities,” wrote Buckley.

Buckley also wrote in the July 20 affidavit that 17 of the 21 items were believed to be in the possession of an unnamed person on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who had put them up for sale.

Shortly after Kestenbaum & Company listed items for sale, one genealogist noticed one in particular, a handwritten burial register in Hebrew and Yiddish known as Pinkas Klali D’Chevra Kadisha.

The researcher told Robert Schwartz, President of the Israelite Community of Cluj, about the article. Then the Cluj community and the World Jewish Restitution Organization called for the sale to cease, with Schwartz citing the historical value of the register and telling the auction house that it had been “illegally appropriated by unidentified people.”

Kestenbaum & Company approved the motion in February, according to the New York Times report, saying, “We think the issue of the title is extremely important.” The person who put the items up for auction – referred to by the auction house as a “learned businessman” who had worked for years to preserve historical artifacts – agreed to discuss the matter further with the restitution organization, the auction house added.

Daniel E. Kestenbaum, chairman of the auction house, said in an email on Thursday that the company supports the US attorney’s office to resolve the problem. “Our client saved these historical records at a time when they were tragically left behind in countries which, as state policies, actively suppressed both Jewish memory of the past and the freedom of expression of the few surviving Jews who still live there. “Communist countries,” he added.

Law enforcement learned of the proposed sale in February and contacted the auction house and the consignor. While Kestenbaum & Company was cooperating in an investigation into the artifacts, Buckley wrote in their affidavit that the auction house sold one or more items before being contacted by law enforcement agencies.

Buckley added that although the person who put the items up for auction also cooperated, officials feared it might not last.

“The consignor has repeatedly stated that he believes he should be compensated for possession of the manuscripts and scrolls, which adds to government concerns about possible liquidation,” she wrote. “In fact, the consignor has repeatedly expressly stated his intention to sell the manuscripts and rolls to international buyers.”

The material seized by the government contains records from cities that were decimated in the Holocaust. The members of the communities from which the scrolls and manuscripts were removed were “gathered in ghettos, robbed of their property and deported to Nazi extermination camps, where most of them were killed,” said the US prosecutor.

Schwartz, a Holocaust survivor, was born hidden in a basement after his pregnant mother fled the city’s ghetto.

“Very few members of the ward survived World War II,” he told the Times earlier this year, calling the burial register “very valuable to the history of our ward.”