Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Austria: Bomberg Bible Stolen in 1938 Returned to Vienna Jewish Community

Copy of a page from the First Rabbinic Bible (1517) published by David Bomberg
from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Austria: Bomberg Bible Stolen in 1938 Returned to Vienna Jewish Community

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The following story comes – of all places – from the US Immigration and Customs Service (ICS). It’s about the return of a copy of the first Rabbinic Bible printed by David Bomberg in Venice to the Jewish Community of Vienna, from which it was apparently looted during in 1938. Appropriately, the return of the recovered book – which was offered at auction in June and its origins then recognized – took place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night and day when most of Vienna’s synagogues were burned and destroyed.

Of course, Bomberg’s works have known fire and destruction before. He was the first to print a complete Talmud, which besides one of the great masterpieces of printing, also established the pagination and many other editorial devices that have been used in Talmud publication ever since. As far I can tell, only two complete sets of Bomberg’s Talmud survive (both of which were rediscovered in recent years). This is in part because they were so used by every Jewish community that could afford to obtain one, but also, no doubt, because many have been destroyed over the years. In 1553, Pope Julius III was convinced that the Talmud attacks Christianity, and ordered thousands of volumes burned in Rome, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice and Mantua. No doubt many of these burned books were printed by Bomberg. One complete set was in the collection of Union Theological Seminary in New York and was sold for $2 million in 2002. Another copy – order by King Henry VIII – was in the collection of the Westminster Abbey – and was obtained by collector Jack Lunzer when he was able to purchase the Abbey’s original charter and worked out a deal (see: Treasure Trove: How is it that one of the greatest collections of Hebraica ever assembled can’t find a home?)

Bomberg's Rabbinic Bibles are a little more common, in part because there were various editions, and they were not publicly burned. The first version - of which the Vienna copy is an example - was edited by Felix Pratenis, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, and the publication was supported by the Pope (Jewish converts frequently found work in the book trades - and later as text revisers for the Inquisition - because of their knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish liturgy) . A second version in 1525 was edited by an observant Jew Jacob ben Hayim and was more popular with Jewish scholars. A pristine copy of the Second Biblia Rabbinica - that was preferred by Jewish scholars - was recently obtained by the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

Here is the article from the ICE about the book return to Vienna. The author of the press release obviously was never taught the difference between a manuscript (hand written) and a printed book - thus missing a critical point of the importance of printed bibles - that more copies could be made and more people has access to them).

ICE returns 16th century Hebrew Bible looted by Nazis
The 2-volume manuscript was stolen from Vienna, Austria, in 1938

NEW YORK - A 16th century two-volume Bomberg/Pratensis Rabbinic Bible is back in the hands of its rightful owners 71 years after it was stolen by the Nazis. Today, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York returned the Bible to Vienna's Jewish community, known as Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (IKG). This repatriation marks the third time this year that ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office have repatriated artwork or property stolen during the Holocaust.

During the annexation of Austria in 1938, Nazi soldiers confiscated the rare Bible from the IKG library. On Nov. 9, 1938, known to history as "Kristallnacht," or "Crystal Night," the Gestapo seized and sealed the IKG library. Custody of the IKG library was transferred to the "Reichssicherheitshauptamt" (RSHA) in Berlin between 1939 and 1941. When Berlin was evacuated in 1943, main sections of the IKG library were transferred to other Nazi-occupied territories in Lower Silesia, a province of Poland, and North Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic.

The Rabbinic Bible, published between 1516 and1517, is a manuscript that includes an Aramaic summary and a series of commentaries by key medieval rabbinic figures including 11th century French scholar Rashi, late 12th/early 13th century Provencal scholar David Kimche, 13th century Spanish scholar Nachmanides and 14th century French scholar Gersonides.

The New York City auction house Kestenbaum & Company had offered for sale in its June 25, 2009, auction catalogue, an item described as a "Bible: Venice. Bomberg, 1516-1517." An ICE investigation determined that the ancient Bible described in the catalog was actually part of the library and property of IKG. The Bible was illegally imported into the United States on March 19, 2009. Once agents provided Kestenbaum proof of the Bible's provenance and prior ownership, the auction house immediately agreed to withdraw the Bible from auction and return it to its owners.

"The Bible returned today is a priceless inheritance of the people of Vienna," said James T. Hayes, Jr., special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in New York. "ICE and the U.S. Attorney's office are grateful for the cooperation of Kestenbaum and Company auction house in the recovery of the Bible, and hope that Kestenbaum's leadership will encourage their peers in the industry to take a good look at their own works."

"It is important to understand that this Bible is being returned without litigation," said Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy of the U.S. State Department Office of Holocaust Issues. "To facilitate the return to rightful owners of cultural items displaced during World War II, the United States is considering the establishment of a commission to review and make recommendations on cases for which the parties are unable to reach a mutually satisfactory settlement. This would bring a measure of justice to Holocaust survivors, heirs and communities."

"Seventy-one years ago today, on 'Kristallnacht,' the Nazis carried out a violent and coordinated attack on Jewish people, ransacking the places they lived, worked and gathered," said Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. "The passage of time does not diminish our remembrance, or the duty to return all surviving works of art and precious symbols stolen by the Nazis. Returning this Bible to the IKG today is a step toward that worthy goal."

ICE and the U. S. Attorney's Office have been at the forefront of investigating and recovering looted Holocaust-related artwork on behalf of rightful owners. Within the last six months, ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office have recovered two paintings stolen by the Nazis that belonged to the late Jewish art dealer Max Stern. The 17th-century Dutch painting "Portrait of a Musician Playing a Bagpipe" and "St. Jerome." a painting by famed Italian artist Ludovico Carracci (1555 - 1619), were returned to the collector's estate.

ICE is a participant of the Department of State's Holocaust Art Recovery Working Group. If anyone has any information about the Holocaust-related theft or trafficking of artifacts or artwork please contact the ICE Deputy Special Agent in Charge Office at John F. Kennedy Airport at (718) 553-1824 or call (866) DHS-2ICE.

ICE, the largest investigative agency of the Department of Homeland Security, handles investigations into stolen or illegally exported cultural artifacts that show up on the world market.

For more about ICE's cultural heritage investigations, please go to: http://www.ice.gov/pi/news/factsheets/index.htm

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