Holocaust Survivors Ask Israel Museum to Return One-of-a-Kind Haggadah

Their lawsuit claims the Passover book was stolen, then purchased under dubious circumstances

Birds' Head Haggadah at Israel Museum
The 700-year-old book is thought to be the oldest surviving document of its kind.  Yoninah via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

For generations, Jews around the world have used the Haggadah as their guide to celebrating the Passover holiday; many pass on these cherished books as family heirlooms. In recent days, one Haggadah dating back to the 14th century, perhaps the oldest of its kind, has become the subject of a serious legal tussle—one that could transfer ownership from an Israeli museum to the Holocaust survivors who claim to own it.

The 700-year-old Birds’ Head Haggadah, so named for its illustrations of humans with birds’ heads making matzah, has been in the collections of the Israel Museum since 1946. It has been described by the museum as the oldest surviving illuminated Ashkenazi Passover Haggadah. The ritual script, which is read during the ceremonial meal on the first two nights of Passover, was produced in southern Germany. But its tangled path to the Jerusalem museum is now the subject of a lawsuit that alleges “illegal possession” of the document, the Art Newspaper’s Kabir Jhala reports.

“The Birds’ Head Haggadah is one of the worlds’ most famous medieval Jewish manuscripts,” Michelle Margolis Chesner, a Judaica librarian at Columbia University, tells the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA)’s Asaf Shalev. “The distinctiveness of the bird-headed Jews—in medieval Jews’ hats!—has intrigued art historians, scholars, and the general public for generations.”

The book in question came into the hands of Jewish-German politician Ludwig Marum as a wedding present from his father-in-law, his descendants explain in the lawsuit. A vocal opponent of the Third Reich, Marum served in Germany’s parliament until he was arrested by the Nazis in 1933. He was murdered at Kislau concentration camp in March 1934, making him among the Nazis’ earliest Jewish victims.

Human figure with a bird's head making matzah
The Haggadah features humans with birds' heads making matzah for Passover.  Israel Museum, Public Domain via Google Art Project/Wikimedia Commons

In the lawsuit, the family claims that Marum’s wife brought the Haggadah from her husband’s office to their home, where it was stolen by an unknown burglar before finding its way into the hands of another German Jew, who then allegedly sold the book for $600 (about $9,000 today) to the Bezalel National Museum, which became part of the Israel Museum in the 1960s. Now, Marum’s descendants say, the document is estimated to be worth $10 million.

The family alleges that the museum’s director at the time orchestrated a “backroom deal” to obtain the Haggadah. On top of that, the lawsuit claims, the museum “removed and destroyed” a document showing the family owned the Haggadah for more than 75 years, and failed to comprehensively examine the item’s ownership record.

The Art Newspaper reports that Marum’s grandchildren—three of whom are Holocaust survivors—demand the book be removed from the museum, renamed the “Marum Haggadah,” and returned to their ownership, with the hopes of displaying it publicly in a “worthy institution.”

The museum rejects the lawsuit’s claims.

This is the first time a lawsuit related to Holocaust-era lost goods has been filed against any Israeli museum and “is likely the last time such a lawsuit will be filed by heirs who Holocaust survivors,” the Art Newspaper reports.

Institutions worldwide have been grappling with how to make amends to the Jewish families whose art and heirlooms were lost during the Holocaust. Some of these holdings were left behind when families were sent to concentration camps. Others were looted by the Nazis or taken by people who moved into families’ former residences once they were ousted. Some Jews sold their treasures under duress for far less than their worth to avoid starvation or persecution.

Though many museums didn’t obtain these works directly from Jewish families, their secondhand acquisition from dubious sources has led many descendants to request their return. This January, France returned 15 works of art to their rightful Jewish owners, including paintings held by the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay.

Despite an international effort to uncover the provenance of pieces lost or plundered during the Holocaust, reports Smithsonian magazine’s Jackie Mansky, the process is complex, labor-intensive and slow. As a result, art and artifacts seldom make it back to their owners.

The case, the family’s attorney says in a statement, “reflects the Marum family’s heroic efforts to survive and persevere as a family.” But it could also come with financial benefits. In the lawsuit, the Marum family objects to the museum’s sale of a pop-up book of the Haggadah and claims the museum has “[deprived] them of the value” they’d otherwise receive from sales.