Under Nazi rule in 1944, some 18,000 Jews were deported in six trains from the city of Cluj-Napoca in modern-day Romania to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. They almost all perished. Jewish homes, offices, archives and synagogues in Cluj were ransacked and property looted, including books and historical archives, leaving behind a faint trace of a once vibrant, mostly Hungarian-speaking community .
Today, decades after the emigration of several of the few Holocaust survivors, the Jewish community there is only 350 people and has little evidence of its history.
But this month, a rare relic of Cluj’s Jewish past surfaced in a New York auction house. A bound commemorative register of Jewish graves in the city between 1836 and 1899 was one of 17 documents offered, and subsequently withdrawn from sale, at Kestenbaum & Company, a Brooklyn auction house specializing in Judaica.
The withdrawal came at the behest of the Jewish community in Cluj and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which requested that the sale of the funeral register listed in the catalog of the February 18 auction and known as Pinkas Klali D’Chevra Kadisha, be canceled.
The register, handwritten in Hebrew and Yiddish with an elaborate title page extolling the funeral society’s leaders, was spotted online by a genealogy researcher who alerted Robert Schwartz, president of the Jewish community of Cluj.
“Very few members of the community survived WWII,” says Schwartz. “It’s surprising that the book appeared at auction, because no one knew anything about it. We have few documents or books, so this manuscript is a vital source of information about the community in the 19th century.
Schwartz was one of the Holocaust survivors from Cluj. He was born hidden in a cellar after his pregnant mother escaped the city ghetto. A prominent chemist, since 2010 he has headed the Jewish community of Cluj, which is the fourth largest city in Romania and is home to the country’s largest university.
Under his leadership, the community attempted to rebuild itself, celebrating Jewish religious festivals with a larger audience and organizing scholarly events in the pre-pandemic era. The Neolog Synagogue, the only one of the three synagogues still in use as a Jewish place of worship, is being renovated and will house a small museum, Schwartz said. “This document could be very valuable as a key exhibit,” he said.
In a letter to the auction house earlier this month, Schwartz described the manuscript – which was estimated to fetch between $ 5,000 and $ 7,000 – as “very valuable to the history of our community” and said that it had been “illegally appropriated by people who were not. identified. “
He also gained support from the World Organization for Jewish Restitution, which urged the auction house to end the sale of both Cluj’s funeral records and a similar registry of births and deaths. death of Jews from Oradea. In its letter, the restitution organization said that private institutions like Kestenbaum have “a responsibility to ensure that claims for the recovery of property confiscated by the Nazis are resolved promptly” and cited international agreements on the return of property. cultural property looted by the Nazis and Holocaust-era property.
“Given the historically delicate nature of the items entrusted to us to manage, we consider the title issue to be of the utmost importance,” wrote Daniel Kestenbaum, founding president of the auction house, in an email. “Therefore, with respect to newly acquired information, the manuscripts have been removed from our February Judaica auction.”
The shipper is “a learned businessman who for decades has gone to great lengths to save and preserve historical artifacts that would otherwise have been destroyed,” Kestenbaum said. The seller agreed to discuss the matter further with the return organization, he said.
Zoltan Tibori Szabo, director of the Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Cluj, said he was counting on the goodwill of the sender. If made available to researchers, the newly discovered registry will provide researchers with the names of the ancestors of those who were expelled, he said.
“Usually if a person dies their community and family will remember them,” he said. “But in the case of hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews, they had nothing left – even their documents were stolen and gone. You cannot piece together the history of a community without documents. We don’t even have a list of their names.
While historic Jewish community records are occasionally put up for sale, it is unusual for so many to be auctioned at once, said Jonathan Fishburn, a Jewish and Hebrew book dealer in London. The market is generally confined to museums and libraries, although some private collectors with a connection to a specific region are also potential customers, he said. Kestenbaum said that of about 30,000 auction lots he managed during his career, only about 100 involved such documents, which he described as essential for genealogical research.
“This is about saving history,” said Gideon Taylor, president of operations at the World Organization for Jewish Restitution. The newly discovered register “is a treasure and a rare window into the past,” he said. “Every name on this list matters.”
The discovery of these documents is “symbolic of a larger challenge,” he said. “How do we make sure these pieces of history don’t get traded?” We want to make sure it gives us a roadmap for the future. We will contact the auction houses more systematically and seek partnerships. “