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Jewish artifacts taken by Nazis in Holocaust seized at New York auction house, feds say

Memory Objects: Judaica Collections (The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley/Flickr)

Jewish artifacts once illegally confiscated by Nazis during World War II and thought to be lost forever have been found and seized by the Department of Homeland Security Investigations, according to the Department of Justice.

Seventeen artifacts — including funeral scrolls, communal records and other manuscripts, from Jewish communities in Romania, Hungary, Ukraine and Slovakia — were found at a Brooklyn auction house that was selling them, according to a statement from the Department of Justice. The auction house, Kestenbaum and Company, has cooperated with authorities, according to an affidavit.

The scrolls and manuscripts found date from the mid-19th century to World War II and were taken from Jewish communities during the Holocaust. Three additional artifacts are thought to be in Israel and upstate New York, according to the statement.

“The Scrolls and Manuscripts that were illegally confiscated during the Holocaust contain priceless historical information that belongs to the descendants of families that lived and flourished in Jewish communities before the Holocaust,” Jacquelyn Kasulis, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in the statement. “This Office hopes that today’s seizure will contribute to the restoration of pre-Holocaust history in Eastern Europe.”

Law enforcement learned that the auction house was selling manuscripts originating from Jewish communities whose members were “gathered in ghettos, robbed of their property and deported to Nazi death camps, where the majority of them were killed,” according to the statement.

After WWII, surviving community members returned “to find their homes ransacked and buildings emptied of property,” the statement said. Among the stolen items were the scrolls and manuscripts that contained information about the Jewish communities from as early as 1840 through the Holocaust.

Under the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, all unclaimed Jewish property was to be returned to survivors’ communities, according to the affidavit.

“The Manuscripts and Scrolls were confiscated by individuals who had no right to do so during and after the Holocaust,” the statement said.

The manuscripts contained prayers for the dead, memorial pages, names of deceased community members, society regulations, names of religious leaders, and in some cases, names of community members who were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“We are fortunate to be part of the team that is able to return these artifacts to their rightful Jewish communities,” Peter Fitzhugh, a Homeland Security Investigations special agent, said in the statement. “…(We) will continue to bring to justice the individuals and transnational criminal organizations who profit from the trafficking of these cultural treasures.”

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