December 4, 2022

Under National Socialist rule in 1944 around 18,000 Jews were deported in six trains from the city of Cluj-Napoca in what is now Romania to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Almost all of them perished. Jewish homes, offices, archives and synagogues in Cluj have been searched and properties looted, including books and historical records, leaving little traces of a once lively, mainly Hungarian-speaking community.

Today, decades after many of the few Holocaust survivors emigrated, the Jewish community there is only 350 and has little evidence of its history.

But this month a rare relic of Cluj’s Jewish past popped up at a New York auction house. A bound memorial register for Jewish burials in the city between 1836 and 1899 was one of 17 documents that were offered and then withdrawn from sale at Kestenbaum & Company, a Judaica auction house in Brooklyn.

The withdrawal was canceled at the request of the Cluj Jewish community and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, who requested the sale of the funeral register listed in the catalog for the February 18 auction and known as Pinkas Klali D’Chevra Kadisha.

The register, handwritten in Hebrew and Yiddish, with a detailed front page praising the funeral company leaders, was discovered online by a genealogist who alerted Robert Schwartz, president of Cluj’s Jewish community.

“Very little parish membership survived World War II,” says Schwartz. “It’s surprising that the book turned up at auction because nobody knew anything about its existence. We have few documents or books, so this manuscript is an important source of information about the 19th century church. “

Schwartz was one of the Holocaust survivors from Cluj. He was born hidden in a basement after his pregnant mother fled the city’s ghetto. As an eminent chemist, he has headed the Jewish community of Cluj, the fourth largest city in Romania and home to the country’s largest university, since 2010.

Under his leadership, the community has sought to rebuild, celebrate Jewish religious festivals with a wider audience, and hold scientific events in pre-pandemic times. The Neolog Synagogue, the only one of the three synagogues there that is still used as a Jewish place of worship, is currently being renovated and will house a small museum, Schwartz said. “This document could be very valuable as a key exhibit,” he said.

In a letter to the auction house earlier this month, Schwartz described the manuscript – which was estimated to fetch between $ 5,000 and $ 7,000 – as “very valuable to our community’s history” and said it was “illegally appropriated by those who did not were identified. “

He also sought assistance from the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which asked the auction house to stop selling both the Cluj funeral records and a similar register of the births and deaths of Jews from nearby Oradea. In its letter, the restitution organization stated that private institutions such as Kestenbaum were “responsible for ensuring that claims for the recovery of property seized by the Nazis are resolved quickly,” and cited international agreements on the return of cultural property and assets from the Holocaust looted by the Nazis. Time.

“Given the historically delicate nature of the items entrusted to us, the title question is of the utmost importance to us,” wrote Daniel Kestenbaum, founding chairman of the auction house, in an email. “In relation to recently acquired information, manuscripts were withdrawn from our Judaica auction in February.”

The shipper is “a learned businessman who has made enormous efforts for decades to save and preserve historical artifacts that would otherwise have been destroyed,” said Kestenbaum. The seller agreed to further discuss the matter with the refund organization, he said.

Zoltan Tibori Szabo, director of the Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Cluj, said he was counting on the goodwill of the sender. If it is made available to researchers, the name of the newly discovered register will give scholars the names of the ancestors of the deportees, he said.

“When a person dies, they are usually remembered by their community and family,” he said. “But with hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe, nothing was left of them – even their documents were robbed and disappeared. You cannot restore a community’s history without documents. We don’t even have a list of their names. “

While historical Jewish community registers are occasionally put up for sale, it’s unusual for so many to be auctioned off at once, said Jonathan Fishburn, a London-based Jewish and Hebrew book dealer. The market is generally limited to museums and libraries, although some private collectors with a connection to a particular region would also be potential customers, he said. Kestenbaum said that of the roughly 30,000 auction lots he has worked on in his career, only about 100 related to records he identified as critical to genealogical research.

“It’s about saving history,” said Gideon Taylor, chairman of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization. The newly discovered register “is a treasure and a rare window into the past,” he said. “Every name on this list is important.”

The discovery of these documents was “a symbol of a greater challenge,” he said. “How do we make sure that these pieces of history aren’t traded? We want to make sure we have a roadmap for the future. We will approach auction houses more systematically and look for partnerships. “