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Family claims prized Passover manuscript

Descendant­s of Jewish lawmaker say text stolen during Nazi era

- By Daniel Estrin

German Jewish lawmaker say the famed Birds’ Head Haggadah, a medieval copy of the text read around Jewish dinner tables on Passover, was stolen from their family during the Nazi era and sold without the family’s consent 70 years ago to the predecesso­r of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem — an act the family calls a “long-standing illegal and moral injustice.”

The medieval manuscript, which tells the biblical tale of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, has long vexed scholars with its peculiar drawings of Jewish figures with birdlike heads. Now, a new page in the manuscript’s history is being written, as a high-profile American attorney who restored looted masterpiec­es by artist Gustav Klimt to their Jewish heir — a courtroom drama made famous in the recent Hollywood film “Woman in Gold” — is taking on the case.

The manuscript is currently displayed behind glass in a darkened room at the Israel Museum in a special exhibit ahead of the weeklong Passover holiday, which began Friday. The family wants the manuscript to remain at the museum, but it demands the museum pay compensati­on and rename the manuscript after the family — or face a lawsuit.

“We want a compromise,” said Eli Barzilai, 75, who lives in Jerusalem.

He is leading the restitutio­n demand in Jerusalem on behalf of his cousins in the United States and Berlin. The Art Newspaper, which first reported the ownership claim, said the family is seeking “less than” $10 million, but neither Barzilai nor the family’s lawyer would cite a figure.

“If we go to court,” he said, “there’s no turning back.”

Barzilai said his lawyer and the Israel Museum had exchanged documentat­ion regarding the Haggadah, and that Barzilai would meet museum staff for the first time in May.

The museum said in a statement that it “looks forward to meeting with Mr. Barzilai ... and to learning about whatever new informatio­n and documentat­ion he has and to sharing what the Museum knows with him.”

In an email exchange provided by Barzilai’s lawyer, the museum’s lawyer acknowledg­ed the Marum family’s ownership of the Haggadah “for a period of time up until 1933.”

Written in southern Germany around 1300 by a scribe identified only as Menahem, the Bird’s Head Haggadah has long been a riddle.

Much of the enigma surrounds its strange illustrati­ons of Jewish figures. Marc Michael Epstein, author of the book “The Medieval Haggadah,” thinks the drawings were meant to offer a positive representa­tion of Jews while skirting a biblical prohibitio­n against depicting human likenesses.

Barzilai says the 14thcentur­y Haggadah was a wedding gift from his grandmothe­r’s family to his grandfathe­r, Ludwig Marum, a lawyer from the German town of Karlsruhe who served in Germany’s parliament and opposed Adolf Hitler.

The Nazis paraded Marum and other opponents across town before taking them away. Marum was later killed at the Kislau concentrat­ion camp.

A Jewish lawyer named Shimon Jeselsohn who worked with Marum eventually moved to Israel after World War II.

One day, he read in the newspaper about a special Haggadah purchased by the Bezalel National Museum, the forerunner to the Israel Museum.

Jeselsohn recognized it as the Birds’ Head Haggadah.

Curious as to how the manuscript ended up in Jerusalem, Jeselsohn began making inquiries. The museum director told him a Jewish immigrant from Karlsruhe brought it after the war.

When Jeselsohn asked the immigrant where he got it, he said a Jewish doctor had given it to him.

But when the doctor denied it, the immigrant offered no further explanatio­n, and Jeselsohn grew suspicious.

He wrote to Barzilai’s aunt, Elisabeth, who had survived World War II and moved to New York.

After a visit to Israel in 1984 to see the Haggadah at the Israel Museum with Barzilai, Elisabeth wrote to the museum that she thought the immigrant who had brought it to Jerusalem “had no right to sell it,” but that the Marum family wanted it to remain at the museum “for the benefit of the public.”

For years, the family did not act. Dominique Avery, Elisabeth’s daughter, said her late mother thought she had no recourse to retrieve the manuscript.

After Barzilai heard a speech last year at the Israel Museum by E. Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer who retrieved the Klimt paintings, Barzilai enlisted the lawyer’s help.

 ?? SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/AP ?? The medieval manuscript, which tells the biblical tale of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, has puzzled scholars with its drawings of Jewish figures with birdlike heads.
SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/AP The medieval manuscript, which tells the biblical tale of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, has puzzled scholars with its drawings of Jewish figures with birdlike heads.

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