Mattan Segev-Frank is a man with a mission. And while he has singlehandedly already begun making an impact, he knows that the issues he is concerned about are much larger than any single person. They require governments and international authorities to take decisive steps.
My first encounter with Mattan, a Genealogy Researcher and an MA student of the History of the Jewish People at the Tel Aviv University, was in a Jewish genealogy Facebook group when he shared his dismay at stolen historic and vital records from Hungary’s Jewish community being auctioned off online to the highest bidder. But BidSpirit is not the only place where history is auctioned off. And in this case, as he pointed out in his post, it was “at least the fifth time rabbinical records stolen from the Jewish community of Budapest are sold on this website.”
Important communal documents for sale and stolen records are only two of the issues. The larger ones have to do with the only evidence of life in decimated Jewish communities not being accessible to historians, let alone to family members seeking information about their own ancestors, and to the incoherence of laws that lack a comprehensive approach to protecting this information.
I want to share his story because it belongs to all of us. This is a bit long, but I cannot stress how important – and infuriating – this theft and sale of our people’s past is. As he notes in the beginning of his Facebook post, reproduced below, international regulation is needed “in relation to heritage assets of the Jewish people, which were abandoned, stolen or lost in the wake of the Holocaust and are now traded in auction houses around the world.”
He begins by introducing how his research has brought him to this space. To paraphrase, his thesis is on Austrian-Hungarian Jewry’s genealogy and history in modern times and focuses on Rabbi Koppel Charif (R. Yaakov Koppel Altenkunstadt-Reich) along with his descendants (1766-1945). Mattan shares the following; I have inserted hyperlinks where helpful:
Several times, I have stumbled upon online auctions, through the BidSpirit platform and auction houses like Kedem, of letters and documents handwritten by rabbis from all over Austria-Hungary at the time (i.e. also from modern-day Slovakia, Austria and Romania), some of which included genealogical documents (Birth / marriage / death / circumcision / divorce or burial records) of random Jews. These letters are sold to collectors who are enthusiastic about the idea of holding in the handwriting of important rabbis, with a preference for the Hebrew language, but documents in German or Hungarian are also frequently sold.
More disturbing are the sales of Chevra Kadisha [Burial Society] books from various localities throughout Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. These books are Jewish heritage assets, some from towns where the Jewish cemeteries were destroyed and sometimes the records of the Jewish community were also lost in the Holocaust, and these books of the Chevra Kadisha are the last remnant left for the Jews of these towns and villages. From my experience as founder and co-admin of The Israeli Genealogy Hub On Facebook, I know that people’s descendants all over the world are looking for traces of their family background (sometimes without success) and paying companies like MyHeritage, Ancestry And others, while in a parallel universe, unknown private entities sell these centuries-old heritage assets of the Jewish people to private collectors as if they were their own private property to sell, until the books will eventually wear out and disappear along with the memory of Jewish life before the Holocaust).
In the past, the Kedem auction house sold a single page from the Chevra Kadisha book of Trnava, Slovakia, valuable because of the signature of local rabbi Shimon Sidon, in complete disrespect to the deceased whose burial arrangements were told on that page, in this case the rabbi’s sister-in-law, both belong to my extended family. On that occasion, some members of the extended Sidon family made a fundraiser and purchased the page together, so that it would not be circulated by unrelated strangers, but we did not like the phenomenon itself, and were sorry to understand that the Trnava burial book was torn to pieces with each page sold separately.
A particularly relevant example – just yesterday, a binder was opened for bidding through a platform called “Bidspirit”, a folder with 62 letters from Hungarian rabbis from before the Holocaust. I stumbled upon this auction because the list of rabbis includes several members of the Reich dynasty that I am researching.
This item’s description says:
“A one of a kind item. A binder containing a large collection of 62 letters (not in Hebrew) from Hungarian rabbis, including students of the Chatham Soffer and the Ktav Soffer and more, sent to the offices of the Jewish community in Budapest between 1830-1944.
This unique collection has great historical value. It includes documents, certificates and notices regarding the central offices of the Orthodox Jewish community in Budapest, such as: identification certificates, marriage records, death and birth records, contracts between individuals and communities, sales contracts, declarations, testimonies about the status of men and women, signed by the greatest rabbis and leaders of communities.
Most were written in Hungarian and German and were sent from all around Hungary as well as Germany, Poland and Romania.”
A link to the auction, where there’s a list (in Hebrew) of 62 rabbis appearing in the binder, for which the starting price required is $ 3500:
The very existence of this market seems completely wrong to me, since these materials must be collected by the appropriate authorities (The Central Archive of the History of the Jewish People at the Israeli National Library, The Museum of the Jewish People Beit Hatfutsot And / or the Goldstein-Goren Center for Diaspora Research at TAU, For example), and undergo preservation, digitization and made digitally accessible for the Jewish public in Israel and around the world, rather than hiding in some private collector’s cabinet, or be passed around between ‘machers’ who trade in the history of the Jewish people for personal gain as if it were their private property.
Mattan’s original post, the one that had spurred our correspondence, was about this auction. I started searching and found many other auctions, not only on BidSpirit’s platform, where historical documents were being sold. But as he points out, sometimes it is okay.
Naturally, if the descendants of a rabbinical family decide to sell a certificate or letter that has been preserved in their family for generations – it is their right and there is currently no legal option to force them to do the right thing and hand over the documents to the appropriate source.
In other cases, the court in Israel has chosen to intervene, as in the following two examples:
- In May 2019, the court accepted the appeal of the state and the ombudsman and banned the sale of drafts of the Israeli Declaration of Independence at an auction. The judges reasoned: “These are part of the cultural assets of the state of Israel, a testimony of our past, part of our collective identity”.
- In October 2019, a court in Israel stopped an auction of letters written by children around the beginning of World War II, and forced the seller, Dudi Zilberschlag, a Yad Vashem board member, to hand them over to Yad Vashem and the children’s families
In the present case – the auction house itself explicitly wrote that the source is the offices of the Jewish community in Budapest and therefore it is impossible to claim these 62 letters by different rabbis from all over Austria-Hungary are anyone’s private property. A search of the site’s past auctions shows this is at least the 5th batch of such letters from the Hungarian community being sold, and this seems to be trade in stolen property and cultural heritage.
As if I was not shocked enough by the very existence of this market, I discovered that the same sales platform, BidSpirit, also hosted sales of the online auction house ‘Valkyrie Historical Auctions’ (a name with a Nazi affinity), which sold a copy of Hitler’s book ‘Mein Kampf’ about 3 months ago, And right now they are selling a variety of souvenirs from the German army in the two world wars, from ghettos and concentration camps, including documents and letters from prisoners. I shudder at the thought of where those documents came from.
This made me wonder which of the relevant authorities and organizations are even aware of the situation, how is it legally made possible, and whether anything is done by anyone to uproot this repulsive phenomenon.
But it is where Mattan takes his concern that matters. Here, he shares specifics, but in our correspondence he also pointed out what he was able to find out about existing laws. I want to share that too, but do not want to interrupt Mattan’s narrative here, and so that will follow after the rest of this post – which he also emailed to parties he believed should take an interest.
According to a source in the Central Archive of the History of the Jewish People, during the 1990s the archive of the Hungarian Jewish community was deposited in the Israeli National Library in an orderly manner, for documentation and preservation purposes, but later it turned out not to be the full material, as a constant leak of records and documents from Hungary and Romania started popping up in the markets of such antique dealers. During the conversation, the case of the Jewish community of Miskolc in Hungary was brought up, as an example for a community which decided to sell its books and records for profit. Imagine how would the Vatican react if a tiny church anywhere in the Catholic world dared to do such a thing independently …
In addition, it was noted that there is no way to know exactly when and where the theft was committed, whether it was committed by a community worker or a visitor, or whether the documents were stolen during the processing and documentation of the documents, in Hungary or Israel. Also – no one has ever reported a theft, so law enforcement or any other authority has never been involved in the matter.
I posted on the subject in the Facebook group ‘Zsidó Múlt -> Családkutatás’ which deals with Jewish genealogical research in Hungary, and asked if the group members are aware of the phenomenon, and if they have a chance to find out from the Hungarian Orthodox community offices if they are aware of the phenomenon. It turned out that no one there was aware of it and my post provoked (justified) anger from several Hungarians of Jewish descent who were appalled. One of them, a native of Miskolc, inquired with the local community and told me that the community did not sell anything and wasn’t even aware that things were stolen and sold. Turns out – their Chevra Kadisha book was auctioned in 2013 and many of their ancient community’s books are Currently sitting in the library of the prestigious Yale University.
And talking about the Yale Library – according to the library’s online catalog, they hold many community books donated by Jewish organizations, or purchased from private collectors (such as the late bibliographer Prof. Yeshayau Vinograd who died less than a year ago). I was told that the Harvard library has a HUGE collection gathered by Charles Berlin, who thought that since the Israeli state will eventually be destroyed – it would be a crime to let it hold the Jewish cultural heritage books, and so he bought as many as he could and put them at Harvard. I am sure that many other universities around the world also house such treasures. I don’t assume that any such book is the result of a trade of stolen goods, and I am certain that these books were donated specifically so that they would be preserved and not ruin. However, if they are buried in these libraries, inaccessible to most of the living descendants of European Jewry, who are neither aware nor able to know where the information about their ancestors is hiding – the result is the same.
In my genealogical travels, I’ve also looked at Columbia University’s and like Harvard and Yale’s and others, much is only on microfilm and not digitized. These archives hold all kinds of documents, sometimes even vital records specific to people and to communities. It is reasonable to assume, as Mattan has, that these three universities are not the only ones holding collections containing critical information. I know as I try to break through brick walls in my own research regarding ancestors whose children and grandchildren emigrated or those family members who did not emigrate and did not survive the Holocaust, it is infuriating to know that useful family records might be locked up somewhere and only those onsite could even discover that this is the case. But I digress.
Following that post, I was contacted by the Hungarian website Bennem Éló Eredet, and they published a news article about the matter, in which they contacted the Israeli National Library, the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs (an opportunity for this ministry to be relevant and do something for Diaspora Jewry and its connection to the State of Israel and the Orthodox community offices in Budapest for comments.
The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs didn’t respond at all to their Email.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Haim and Hannah Salomon Jewish Collection at the National Library, told them that when important items pop up for auction, the library tries to find a donor and get it for the purpose of completing the existing Hungarian collection, but the current sale of the collection of letters from Hungary was for an insane price which they couldn’t afford. He also stated that it is not known when and where the documents were stolen, but it is likely that they were stolen a long time ago and that the thieves will no longer be caught and will never be prosecuted.
The Orthodox community in Budapest expressed horror at the revelation and were trying to find a way to stop the auction.
All of this stresses the need for international regulation.
Mattan has given this a lot of thought. What he is looking for is a thoughtful approach to preserving out past. And I agree. Historical documents — especially ones that should not have left the Jewish communal organizations they emanated from – ought not to be in private hands. They ought not be stolen either. They should be in the hands of the communities they came from or at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People and preserved, digitized and shared so that individuals can find out what happened to their families, so that the Jewish people are not robbed of our past. He continues, speaking about our collective identity:
I have no idea how Hungarian law treats these matters, but in recent years, the Hungarian regime has changed the country’s privacy laws, with the aim of restricting freedom of information. There are fears that an attempt to enlist the help of the Hungarian government will make a bad situation worse, if the Hungarian state will demand to reclaim ownership of the stolen documents and then block access to them anyway.
To paraphrase Justices Neal Hendel, David Mintz, and Yael Willner regarding the drafts of the Israeli Declaration of Independence – these books of the communities of Eastern and Central Europe are also part of the cultural assets of the Jewish People, a testimony to our past and part of our collective identity.
Trafficking in documents of communities destroyed in the Holocaust or those that survived in part should be regarded like trading in antiquities looted from tombs, the pyramids or archeological excavations. Alternatively, it can be likened to trading in illicit goods such as ivory, rhino horns or shark fins.
In my opinion, it is possible and necessary to learn here from the field of the diamond trade. When it comes to such a valuable monetary resource, of course the international authorities knew how to use their power and create international regulation that ensures that even if you dug a diamond from the ground with your own hands – if you do not register it in a way that ensures proper tax payment, it will be considered a blood diamond and you’ll be a criminal to trade it.
Similarly, there’s a need to create international regulation, that’ll recognize such community documents as a by-product of the genocide suffered by the Jewish people during the Holocaust, and regulate the need to collect these documents, preserve them by digitization and make them accessible online to the general public. This way, every Jew who wishes to learn and preserve their personal family heritage can do so, especially in current times in which genealogical research has become an increasingly popular hobby all over the world.
Genealogy may be a hobby for those pursuing it, but its significance is greater than that. For me, it is a way to recreate our lost past and preserve it for our children. I have also found my own genealogical research to be jumping points for learning about the history of the Jewish people. When collections are in private hands, it isn’t always clear where they wind up. Mattan spoke about the Kedem auction house books selling individual pages of Chevra Kadisha books, when they ought to be kept intact, digitized and made available to the families whose loved ones are listed in them. Once in a while, you read about someone who understands the significance of finding individual documents in a collection. The San Diego Union Tribune ran a story about a man who was contacted by a collector who discovered shares owned by the man’s grandmother in a collection he had purchased. He spent three weeks tracking the man down in order to return them. But how many purchasers are that scrupulous?
Mattan notes that since he raised the red flag, in addition to ‘Bennem Éló Eredet’ running the story, a number of things have happened:
1. The Jewish community in Budapest decided to involve the authorities. The collection in question was not sold and was taken off the BidSpirit Catalog altogether. .
2. The Romanian Jewish community of Cluj were made aware that a 19th century Chevra Kadisha book was scheduled to be auctioned off and urged the New York based auction house Kestenbaum & Company to withdraw it since it had apparently been stolen. They cited two international treaties signed by the US, Romania and Hungary in 1947, which called for such property to be returned to the community of survivors. Kestenbaum (which had been one of the companies which sold collections to Yale) agreed, as the New York Times reported. The leader of Cluj’s Jewish community, himself a Holocaust survivor, reached out to the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) who made a separate request to Kestenbaum. The consignor has agreed to speak to the WJRO; we can only hope the book will be returned.
3. The Chairman of the Israeli Association for Archivists and Information and the Chief Archivist of the Israeli State Archive (part of the Prime Minister’s office) have both replied to his email which pointed out the need for legal changes; both agreed.
What kind of legal reform is needed? Internationally, recognition that looted records from communities decimated during the Holocaust are indeed property of those communities would be a start. Mattan also points out that due to specific gaps within Israeli law, the need for an international approach is that more important. The way he explained what those gaps are, I think, warrants attention here:
There are five different laws that I’m aware of (perhaps there are more which I’m not aware of as I’m not a lawyer) which were made at different eras and instead of creating a harmonic eco-system are actually cancelling each other out, and to top it all – have a big loophole in the middle.
1. The archives law is a remnant from the Ottoman empire, very outdated and draconian.
2. The privacy protection law was made in 1981, and doesn’t take into consideration any technological advancement humanity had reached since
3. The Data Accessibility law was made in 1998 but clearly says that it only refers to anything that isn’t protected by the privacy protection law, which covers EVERYTHING.
4+5. The Antiquities law and the Antiquities Authority law cover manuscripts dated up to 1700 AD, but NOT modern history.
As a result – Israel argues that EVERYTHING is protected by the privacy law and doesn’t really open much to the public, and when you do go to the state archive – most of the material would be blacked out “to protect people’s privacy”.
Even the first census of Israel from 1948 was never released, because the state didn’t want our generation to see our grandparents’ professions and maybe think less of them.
There’s a great need in the Israeli law book to rewrite these five laws as one functional eco-system, which keeps the public’s interests (meaning REALLY protects our privacy while regulating the public access to information, taking technology into consideration and differentiating between different kinds of data) instead of the current situation where these laws mainly keep the Israeli government’s interest against the Israeli public’s needs and wishes.
So if everything is private – how can marriage, divorce, birth and death records from our great grandparents’ generation go on sale in these auction houses?
Here’s the loophole:
- An auction where only a bunch of records are sold is not covered by the archives law
- An auction of records from a different country dating before the foundation of Israel probably isn’t covered by the data protection law
- Handwritten materials from the 18th-20th centuries aren’t protected by the antiquities law
As noted, the Chief Archivist agrees with Mattan that legal change is needed. We can only hope that this spurs that change within Israel.
Mattan is hopeful. He also shared with the Israel Ministry of Justice suggestions that he, Daniella Alyagon and Yaniv Reginiano put together on behalf of the over 3000 members of a private Facebook group, The Israeli Genealogy Hub.
This may help within Israel. Internationally, given the WJRO has gotten involved once, it would make sense for other communal organizations who see their stolen history up for auction to reach out to them as well.
And what can we do? Write a blog and help raise attention. Reach out to relevant parties and show support for reforms in laws. Share these stories on social platforms and in the media because they ought to be shared. Scour online auction sites and report suspicious lots.
Mattan singlehandedly got the ball rolling. Hungary, Romania, the US and the Chief Archivist in Israel are now aware. How does he feel about what he’s done? “It’ll take years,” he says, “but now there’s a chance I affected the process for the better,” and that, he notes, makes him “happy and optimistic.”