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February 17, 2021 5:17 pm

Auction House Halts Sale of Historic Burial Registry After Jewish Community in Romania Claims Ownership

avatar by Ben Cohen

A detail of the 19th century burial registry of the Jewish community in Cluj, Romania. Photo: Screenshot.

A leading New York auction house specializing in rare Judaica has withdrawn from sale a historic document originating from the Jewish community in the Romanian city of Cluj, after learning that the item may have been stolen during the Holocaust.

The auction of the 19th-century-era handwritten memorial register of Jewish burials in Cluj was due to have taken place in New York on Thursday afternoon.

However, auctioneers Kestenbaum & Company canceled the sale following an outcry from Jewish leaders in Cluj.

Daniel Kestenbaum, a director of the company, said that the auction house, which has “specialized in the care of rare Judaic material culture for 25 years,” took the “matter of title to be one of the utmost importance.”

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“Any item that passes through our hands is subject to detailed investigation in this regard,” Kestenbaum told The Algemeiner in an email on Wednesday afternoon. “Consequently, in respect to recently acquired information, Lot 33 will be withdrawn from our Judaica auction scheduled for Thursday February 18th.”

An open letter from the Jewish community in Cluj — published by the Romanian magazine Baabel stated that the register had been “illegally appropriated by unidentified persons.”Because the item was stolen, the letter argued,  it “falls under the provisions of the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty and the 2009 Declaration of Terezin.”

Signed by 46 states including the US, Romania and Hungary, under whose administration Cluj was during most of WWII, the two treaties provide for the restitution to their rightful owners of goods illegally appropriated by states or their citizens.

“According to the aforementioned peace treaty, they should be returned to the ‘community of survivors’, in this case, the Jewish Community of Cluj,” the letter said.

Robert Schwartz — president of the Cluj Jewish Community — told the website Balkan Insight on Tuesday that he wanted to know how the register had made its way to New York.

“We don’t want to fight with anyone, we want to find out how it got there, from whom,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz explained that found out about the register from a genealogist who read about the auction on the internet.

“He told me, ‘Look, you are looking in cemeteries for the graves of those who died because you don’t have the documents, and this is being sold online,’” he recalled.

Besides its historical and artistic value, Schwartz said the register would help in the task of reconstructing the past of a community that saw most of its archives destroyed or pillaged during the Holocaust.

Cluj — known as Klausenberg in German, or Kolozsvár in Hungarian — was home to more than 16,000 largely Hungarian-speaking Jews before 1944, when the community was deported to the Auschwitz death camp.

The city is presently home to a Jewish community of about 400 people.

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