Historic artefacts from Eastern European Jewish communities seized in US

NEW YORK (AFP) - Investigators have seized historic artefacts stolen from Eastern European Jewish communities during World War II that were set to be auctioned in the United States, federal officials said Thursday (July 22).

New York-based auction house Kestenbaum & Company was due to sell 17 19th-century funeral scrolls, manuscripts and community records before they were seized off the back of an "extensive" investigation, a Justice Department statement said.

The artefacts were looted "in the midst of our world's darkest of times" during the Holocaust from Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine, Peter Fitzhugh, special-agent-in-charge at the Department of Homeland Security's investigative arm, said in the statement.

"We are fortunate to be part of the team that is able to return these artefacts to their rightful Jewish communities," Fitzhugh added.

Law enforcement learned in February 2021 that the Brooklyn-based auction house was selling the objects, rich in information dating from 1840 up to the start of World War II.

They include prayers for the dead, community rules, names of religious leaders and in some cases, the names of community members sent to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz.

Their sale was suspended at the request of the Jewish community in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca and the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, a group founded after the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and specialised in the restitution of stolen Jewish property.

Among the recovered objects is a book linked to the Jewish community in Cluj-Napoca, which thrived before the war.

According to an affidavit, investigators had found mention of the document in a book published in Cluj in 1936, but there was no trace of it after the Holocaust, suggesting it had been stolen.

In the absence of any paper trail, "there is no legitimate means by which the manuscripts and scrolls could have been imported into the United States," the Justice Department statement said.

The affidavit said the auction house had sold some of the artefacts before being contacted by law enforcement, but had since halted sales.

However, officials preferred to seize the artefacts for fear Kestenbaum & Company would cease to cooperate, the affidavit added.

"The items are in demand from buyers across the globe and can be easily sold and/or transferred to frustrate the government's efforts to unite them with the survivors and successors of the originating communities."

The Justice Department statement gave no indication as to when the artefacts may be returned.

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