Torah scrolls confiscated from Ukrainian community


KIEV (JTA) — As their Torah scrolls were packed into black plastic garbage bags and carried out of the Jewish school, the students and adults continued to pray, many with tears in their eyes.

The scrolls originally belonged to the Jewish community of Zhitomir in central Ukraine, but were acquired by the local state archives through communist and Nazi looting. Since then, in the absence of a restitution law, the archives had lent the scrolls to the community — but on shaky terms.

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On Feb. 14, the community was forced to return 10 scrolls it had received more than two years ago. Representatives of the archives carried them out of the Ohr Avner Jewish Day School, leaving the community without any scrolls.

“This was like the medieval times, this was like a nightmare,” said Oleg Rostovtsev, a spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the country’s leading Jewish umbrella group.

The seizure was the result of a controversy that was triggered a few months ago when the officials at the Zhitomir Regional State Archives demanded the return of the scrolls, citing concern over their safety.

In 2004, the archives handed over 17 out of 290 Torah scrolls in its possession to be used by the local Jewish community run by Chabad.

The scrolls had been the property of the many synagogues and private Jewish households in Zhitomir, and were confiscated by communist authorities during anti-religious campaigns or seized by the Nazis during the occupation of Ukraine in World War II.

For two-and-a-half years, the scrolls were kept in a specially designated room at the Ohr Avner school.

Without a restitution law, many Jewish communities in the post-Soviet Ukraine were allowed to temporarily use Torah scrolls confiscated by the Bolsheviks, while most of the scrolls remain the property of state-run museums and archives.

Such loans do not always satisfy the Jewish community.

The Zhitomir community had previously expressed its concern that in the absence of a proper restitution act, they could not repair the borrowed scrolls in accordance with Jewish law.

In addition, representatives of the community had to submit a petition every three months that would allow them to keep the scrolls.

In October, representatives of the archives checked the scrolls kept in the Zhitomir school and demanded their return, claiming that at least seven of the scrolls may have been damaged while in the community’s possession.

Archive Deputy Director Natalia Shimchenko told JTA that the archive’s curators had established that the “number of units” registered with the archives “did not correspond with those in the community safe.”

Local Jewish leaders deny the accusations of improper care or alterations and said the scrolls — some of them fragmented — were improperly catalogued in the archives.

But the community chose not to argue, and last month returned the seven scrolls in question to the archives.

The archives then refused to prolong the loan agreement on the remaining 10 scrolls and confiscated them Wednesday despite protests from the Jewish community and the local governor.

“We are law-abiding citizens of Ukraine and we have not violated any laws,” community leader Vladimir Rozengurten said, adding that allegations of improper care and damage were “slander.”

“The statements that we have damaged the scrolls are outrageous,” Zhitomir Chief Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm said. “This is a groundless accusation, and we still have no results of the examination” of the scrolls.

But community leaders said they had to back off, apprehensive of possible use of force by representatives of the archives.

“I’m sure we are not saying goodbye for a long time to the Torah scrolls,” Rozengurten said.

He and other community leaders are hoping that legislation will be adopted in Ukraine dictating the return of the scrolls that were confiscated by the Bolsheviks and the Nazis.