WASHINGTON (CN) – Russia must return religious artifacts important to the Jewish Chasidim movement that were seized during the Bolshevik Revolution and at the start of World War II, a federal judge ruled. Flouting a 2010 default judgment, Russia said it would stop loaning art to U.S. museums for fear of having them seized to satisfy the judgment.
The Chasidim movement lost two sets of historical and religious records “during the tumultuous periods of World War I and World War II,” according to the court. Chasidim teaches of the presence of God in all things, even the mundane.
Agudas Chasidei Chabad, a New York-based nonprofit, is the incorporated entity and successor to a worldwide organization of Jewish religious communities having origins in Eastern Europe and Russia. Last year, it won a default judgment that orders the Russian Federation and the Russian Ministry of Culture and Mass Communication to surrender the historical records, which include an archive of 25,000 handwritten pages of materials that Chasidim leaders left in Poland in 1939 as they fled to America.
The Soviet Army seized the documents from defeated German troops and brought them to Russia. Another collection, which includes Chasidim books and manuscripts, was taken by the Soviet Department of Scientific Libraries following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
In a 2006 complaint, Agudas Chasidei Chabad claimed that Soviet tribunals had ordered the return of the records to the group before the Soviet Union dissolved, but the Russian Federation nullified the orders when it took power.
Russia bowed out of litigation, claiming foreign sovereignty, but a federal court ruled against the country, noting that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) says that “A foreign state shall not be immune … in any case in which rights in property taken in violation of international law are in issue.”
Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that the religious group properly served Russia, notifying them of the default judgment last year. Because the country failed to return the records, the group can enforce its judgment.
But the judge declined to impose sanctions against the country for violating the order.
“Though defendants have certainly received notice directing them to return the Library and Archive to plaintiff … they have received no notice that failure to comply with that order may subject them to additional monetary penalties,” Lamberth wrote.
Agudas Chasidei Chabad wanted the court to issue sanctions that could range from $25,000 to $500,000 per day that Russia failed to comply – taking the figures from other cases.
“The court is sympathetic to plaintiff, aware of the long road it has traveled and all-too familiar with the difficult trail that lies ahead in attempting to enforce a FSIA judgment,” Lamberth wrote. “At the same time, defendants’ ongoing failure to comply with the Court’s order to turn over the Library and Archive cannot eliminate the requirement that they be given notice and an opportunity to respond before entry of civil contempt.”
Addressing the fact that Russia is refusing to send art to the United States, Lamberth said “absolutely nothing in today’s order has the effect of removing or altering any protection for cultural objects subject to immunity. … The court hopes that today’s opinion will help facilitate a return to business as usual in the sharing of artifacts and history between nations that is crucial to the promotion of cross-cultural understanding in a global world.”