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Hungarian Jews Seek Return of Scrolls Looted During WWII

Hungarian Jewish leaders talking with Russia over the return of a collection of religious items looted by the Red Army.
By Elad Benari
First Publish: 2/19/2014, 6:13 AM

Torah scroll (illustration)
Torah scroll (illustration)
Flash 90

Hungarian Jewish leaders said Tuesday they had begun talks with Russian authorities over the return of a huge collection of religious items looted by the Red Army during World War II, AFP reports.

The collection, which includes 103 Torah scrolls, was found last year in a museum in Nizhny Novgorod in western Russia.

Rabbi Slomo Koves, head of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, was quoted as having told a press conference in Budapest that the discovery was the "largest single collection of priceless sacred property of the Hungarian Jewish community confiscated in the Holocaust."

Rabbi Koves was part of a team of researchers who found and documented the trove last year. He told AFP that Russian authorities had "only in the last few days" begun talks on ownership and restitution.

Most of the scrolls are damaged and could cost "thousands of dollars" each to restore, he told the news agency.

"After their return and restoration, we intend them to once again be made available again for religious use by Jewish congregations," added the rabbi.

Around 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during the Holocaust, most at the Auschwitz death camp.

Baruch Oberlander, chief Rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitch congregation, told AFP that the return of the scrolls was of "huge importance" to Hungary's Jewish community, whose 100,000 members make it one of the largest in Europe, particularly to those who lost relatives in the Holocaust.

"We cannot bring back the 600,000 martyrs but we can bring back the scrolls that those martyrs prayed with," he said.

Hungary and what went on there during Holocaust have been in the news in recent days, as the country’s largest Jewish organization decided to boycott events marking the 70th anniversary of the start of mass deportations of Jews when the Nazis took power in 1944.

The events have been overshadowed by a planned new monument depicting Hungary as an angel being attacked by a German eagle, which critics say absolves Hungarians of their active role in sending some 450,000 Jews to their deaths.

In January, 26 Hungarian historians signed an open letter saying that the Holocaust took place "with the active contribution of the Hungarian authorities."

Last week, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) accused Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government of trying to "falsify" history and said it supported the decision to boycott this year’s events.

"The attempt to falsify history instead of commemorating the annihilation of two-thirds of Hungary's Jews has caused profound disappointment," WJC president Ronald S.  Lauder said in a letter published by the Hungarian Nepszabadsag daily.

Orban, who is running for re-election in April, has also been accused of turning a blind eye to a rise in anti-Semitism in the country.

Anti-Semitic incidents in Hungary in recent years include the country’s chief rabbi being verbally abused on a Budapest street, anti-Semitic chants at a football match against Israel and pig's trotters being placed on a statue of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Budapest Jews in World War II.

Much of the anti-Semitism has been perpetrated by the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik party. In November of 2012, one of its members released a statement saying that a list should be compiled of all of the Jewish members of government.

Just last week, Jobbik members held a political rally in a former synagogue, sparking protests by anti-fascist demonstrators, who accused the group of "provocation."