Bible That Vanished on Kristallnacht Is Heading Home

New York Times 9 November 2009
By C J Hughes

On Nov. 9, 1938, a two-volume black-leather-clad Hebrew Bible vanished from a library in Vienna after that city’s Jewish community came under assault from soldiers during Kristallnacht, the start of the Nazi pogrom against Jews.

As is the case with much art looted during World War II, the Bible’s location during the following few decades was mostly unknown.

But last winter, the two volumes, printed 493 years ago, were smuggled into New York City, according to federal authorities, who noticed them advertised in a catalog of a New York auction house and confiscated them.

On Monday afternoon, at a repatriation ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, the historic Bible began its journey home, 71 years to the day after it was seized.

“It doesn’t mean money to us,” Dr. Ariel Muzicant, the president of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien, Vienna’s Jewish community, said at the ceremony. “It’s about spiritual value.”

The atlas-size Bible, which was printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in 1516, several generations after the Gutenberg Bible, according to scholars, bears faded gold Hebrew characters on its three-inch-thick spines. And, “for the first time in a Hebrew Bible, the chapter numbers appear in the margin,” according to the catalog issued by Kestenbaum & Company, the auctioneer, which estimated its value at $20,000 to $30,000.

The owner, whose name was not released, will not be charged because he was unaware that the Bible was stolen, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which handled the case.

Kestenbaum said that it cooperated fully once the Bible’s provenance was known.

“The owner immediately accepted their moral responsibility to have it returned — no matter what financial loss was involved,” Jackie Insel, a Kestenbaum manager, said in an e-mail message.

Thousands of Jews were killed or rounded up on Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” as the Nazis called it. Synagogues and other Jewish properties were destroyed.

Although only a handful of the 80,000 volumes taken from Vienna have turned up, the work to locate them will continue, said Ernst-Peter Brezovsky, an Austrian diplomat who also spoke at the ceremony.

“All of these objects reflect the lives of the victims, their ideas, their passions, their interests,” Mr. Brezovsky said. “I think it’s so important to show that good supersedes evil.”
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