Ukranian Jews fight confiscation of Torah scrolls

Ten scrolls taken last week from Jewish day school in Zhitomir; this week Kiev archives tried to claim scrolls from main synagogue.

Ukrainian Jewish leaders are protesting the seizure of Torah scrolls by government archives following incidents in the cities of Zhitomir and Kiev. Most of the scrolls now being used in Ukrainian synagogues were acquired by the state archives and museums through looting under the Nazis and communists. After Ukrainian independence in 1991, some of the scrolls were loaned to synagogues in the absence of a restitution law, but on unclear terms. Recently the archives, claiming concern for the scrolls' welfare, have been reclaiming them. Ten scrolls were taken last week from a Jewish day school in Zhitomir, and this week the Kiev archives attempted to claim scrolls from the city's main synagogue. On Feb. 18, Kiev's Central Brodsky Synagogue received a letter from the head of the Ukrainian State Archives Committee demanding that 18 scrolls loaned to the Jewish community be returned for inspection. The letter, which arrived just four days after the community in Zhitomir had its scrolls seized, triggered a wave of protest from community leaders, who said it was time for Ukraine to adopt a restitution law that would formally return Torah scrolls to the Jews who originally owned them. The scrolls "belong only to the Jewish people and the Jewish communities," the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine said in a statement Wednesday. "The federation categorically insists on the restoration of historical justice and on the return of Torah scrolls" to religious communities and organizations. The group said the issue of the scrolls should be decided as soon as possible and separately from the more complex issue of restitution of other former communal property, such as buildings seized from congregations and individuals. On Feb. 14, representatives of the state archives in Zhitomir, in central Ukraine, confiscated 10 scrolls from the local community, claiming they could have been damaged since they were loaned to the community more than two years ago. Local Jewish leaders deny accusations that they altered or mishandled the scrolls. Olga Ginzburg, head of the Ukrainian State Archives Committee, told JTA on Wednesday that similar safety concerns prompted her agency to request the return of 18 scrolls lent to the Central Brodsky shul. "We lent the scrolls to the Jewish communities, but this is state property and we should check their safety," she said. The synagogue's rabbi rejected Ginzburg's reasoning. "These are our Torahs," Moshe Azman, who also is one of Ukraine's chief rabbis, told JTA. "I already sent a letter to Ginzburg telling her that we won't give back our Torahs. Moreover, I demanded the return of all Torah scrolls from Ukrainian archives and museums to Jewish communities of Ukraine." Ginzburg said the archives' top priority is the safety of the scrolls. "We have a precedent in the Zhitomir shul," she said. "We should first check the scrolls properly." The Central Brodsky synagogue had not violated any terms of the lending contract, Olga Muzychuk, director of the Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine, told JTA. "But the case in the Zhitomir Jewish community has put us on alert," she said. It remained unclear whether other scrolls in dozens of congregations across Ukraine will be taken back to the archives in the near future. Jewish leaders said it was unnecessary to perform any checks. "We won't return any more Torah scrolls," said Vadim Rabinovich, president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress. "The modern Ukrainian authorities shouldn't become like the Bolsheviks." Alexander Sagan, a senior religious affairs official with President Viktor Yuschenko's administration, told JTA that "no more returns" should take place, and pledged that officials will promptly investigate the cases in Zhitomir and Kiev.