The book also memorialized the dead — until World War II broke out and the remembrances stopped. After the war, the book resumed its duty, this time under a heading reflecting how the Nazis had occupied the country and sent tens of thousands of Romanian Jews to die in the Holocaust.
The new title: “Names of the Holy Martyrs who were Murdered, their Blood Spilled as Water …”
And then the book disappeared. For decades, it was lost, seemingly forever.
Until earlier this year, when the 173-page tome went up for sale at a New York auction house — 4,750 miles from home.
Someone in Jerusalem bought it, so it wasn’t one of 17 items seized Thursday from Kestenbaum & Company, a Brooklyn auction house specializing in Judaica, Justice Department officials announced the same day. The items confiscated include funeral scrolls, prayers for the dead, rules governing how a community member should behave in society and other records looted from Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe in Romania, Hungary, Ukraine and Slovakia.
In some records, people documented which of their neighbors the Nazis had taken to Auschwitz.
Until recently, experts believed those “priceless” artifacts and historical records had been “lost for all time,” said Megan Buckley, the Department of Homeland Security special agent who wrote the affidavit to seize the artifacts at Kestenbaum.
But in February, federal investigators learned the auction house had put 21 manuscripts and scrolls up for sale, and they started digging, Buckley said. Those investigators determined the artifacts were authentic but had been taken before and after the Holocaust by people who had no right to them.
“The Scrolls and Manuscripts that were illegally confiscated during the Holocaust contain priceless historical information that belongs to the descendants of families that lived and flourished in Jewish communities before the Holocaust,” Jacquelyn Kasulis, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement.
Kestenbaum sold four of those 21 items, including the Memorial Book of the Talales Synagogue, before federal authorities could seize them, Buckley wrote in her affidavit. Two were sold to the National Library of Israel and one was purchased by someone in Monsey, N.Y.
A spokesman with the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York told The Washington Post the investigation is ongoing into the four items that were sold and not seized by federal authorities. No one has been criminally charged in the case, he said.
The New York Times reported in February that, after putting the items up for auction, Kestenbaum withdrew them at the request of the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Jewish community in Cluj-Napoca, a city about 200 miles northwest of Bucharest.
In a statement provided Friday to The Post, chairman of the auction house Daniel Kestenbaum said the seller “rescued” the artifacts after they were “tragically” abandoned in Soviet-bloc countries where state officials were “suppressing both Jewish memory of the past as well as the freedom of expression of the handful of surviving Jews.”
“As the political culture and makeup of these countries has changed, so complex questions remain unresolved concerning the material culture left behind by those hundreds of Jewish communities that were devoured by Nazi terror,” he said.
Kestenbaum said the auction house supports federal authorities’ efforts to resolve “this meta-historical problem.”
Under Nazi rule, about 18,000 Jews were deported from Cluj and taken to the death camp at Auschwitz, according to the Times. The Nazis killed almost all of them. Back in Cluj, homes, offices and synagogues were ransacked and possessions looted. Today, there are about 350 Jews in Cluj, and they have scant evidence of their history.
That’s why one of the items up for auction at Kestenbaum’s in February is so important. A genealogy researcher on the auction house website spotted a bound memorial register of Jewish burials that happened in the city between 1836 and 1899. The researcher alerted Robert Schwartz, president of the Jewish Community of Cluj, the Times reported.
“Very little belonging to the community survived World War II,” Schwartz told the Times. “It’s surprising that the book surfaced at auction, because no one knew anything about its existence. We have few documents or books, so this manuscript is a vital source of information about the community in the 19th century.”
Schwartz, who was born in hiding after his pregnant mother escaped the Nazis’ Jewish ghetto in Cluj, wrote a letter to Kestenbaum asking the auction house not to sell the register, the Times reported. He enlisted the help of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which pressured the auction house to stop the sale. In its letter, the restitution organization said private institutions like Kestenbaum have “a responsibility to make certain that claims to recover Nazi-confiscated property are resolved expeditiously.”
The auction house pulled the items.
“Given the historically delicate nature of the items that are entrusted to us to handle, we take the matter of title to be one of the utmost importance,” chairmanKestenbaum wrote in a February email to the Times. “Consequently, in respect to recently acquired information, manuscripts were withdrawn from our February Judaica auction.”
Regardless, the fact that the 21 artifacts have surfaced means Jews in the places where the relics originated will get to learn things about their ancestors and their communities they never would have otherwise.
“It’s about saving history,” Gideon Taylor, chair of operations at the World Jewish Restitution Organization, told the Times in February.
The registry “is a treasure and a rare window into the past,” he said. “Every name on that list matters.”