Pre-Holocaust Jewish communal records saved from the auction block

Seven rare ledgers from the 19th and 20th centuries containing records of pre-Holocaust Jewish communal life in what is now Hungary have been removed from public auction and jointly purchased by the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives (HJMA), along with the National Library of Israel (NLI).

Among the documents are thousands of birth, death, marriage and other communal records from six different Jewish communities, many of them from the Holocaust era, which have not yet been digitized.

Included in the registers are marriage records going back to the 1850s in the eastern Hungarian city of Miskolc and burial society logs dating between 1942 and 1946 in the town of Satoraljaujhely, around 50 miles east of Miskolc. At the turn of the 20th century, Satoraljaujhely contained some 4,500 Jews — one-third of the town’s 13,000 residents — but the Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust.

The ledgers will be kept in Jerusalem at the NLI, and will be available for exhibit at the HJMA, housed in Budapest’s Dohany Street Synagogue complex, upon request, said Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the NLI’s Haim and Hanna Solomon Judaica Collection.

The items were set to be auctioned off by the Kedem auction house in Jerusalem on behalf of an anonymous seller on August 24, but were removed from the block after protests by activists and organizations dedicated to the preservation of Jewish heritage, who maintain that such records should not be held by private collectors.

Prior to their removal from the auction block, the documents were listed as having a collective starting value of $2,400.

The sale of communal documents has been the subject of rising controversy, as activists say the records contain priceless historic information and should be safeguarded in public institutions. Private collectors often maintain that they are saving the manuscripts from destruction or obscurity, and auction houses have claimed that by drawing attention to such materials, they are alerting owners of the documents to the monetary value these documents possess, thus saving them from possibly being mishandled or discarded altogether.

Nitzan Dikshtein, head of marketing and development for online auction platform Bidspirit, previously told The Times of Israel that in any case, “many collectors who purchase those lots are donating or lending them to the museums while they are still alive or once they passed away.”

“Thanks to Bidspirit, thousands of Jewish and Israeli important/historical papers/documents have been discovered and made visible online,” said Dikshtein.

In July, United States federal prosecutors confiscated a trove of pre-Holocaust Jewish records about to be auctioned off in Brooklyn. Stringent US laws make such seizures possible, but the vast majority of online auctions of communal documents are conducted within the confines of international law.

According to Finkelman, there is no reason to believe authorities would confiscate communal records on the auction block — for now.

“There has been a very significant shift over the course of the last year regarding the treatment of Central and East European Jewish heritage documents. There’s been a good and valuable call by genealogists and activists to get these materials to the public eye, and there has been an unfortunate trend toward doing so by force,” said Finkelman.

“Some people saw this as a victory because you are taking material out of the hands of private collectors,” Finkelman said. “But the unintended consequence is that a lot of this material that’s in private hands, once there’s a fear of seizure, it’s going to go underground and will never be seen again.”

“We would be missing genealogical information and historical documents that can teach us about the functioning of local Jewish communities and their interactions with local non-Jewish authorities,” he said.

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