German Library Returns Stolen Jewish Manuscript to Israel

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A 215-year-old Jewish manuscript discovered missing a decade ago will be returned by the German library where it surfaced, an Israeli official said Tuesday.

Israeli Embassy officials are currently arranging the manuscript's transfer from the German National Library in Berlin back to Israel, said Avigdor Levin, the top cultural official at the Tel Aviv municipality.

A 1998 inventory check at the city's Rambam Library revealed that the one-of-a-kind manuscript was missing. Titled "The Book of the Levite's Worship," it was a treatise on Jewish law written by a Berlin rabbi in 1793.

The police had no leads on the possible thief and closed the case, Levin said.

A year later, the manuscript was offered at auction at Sotheby's in New York for between $16,000 and $18,000 and was not purchased, but was later sold to an unidentified dealer and disappeared again before the Israelis could put their hands on it, he said.

The manuscript was finally found thanks to a stroke of luck. In 2005, a manuscript specialist at Israel's national library in Jerusalem received a copy of a book being held by the German National Library and realized it was the "Levite's Worship."

After a legal team established that it was indeed the missing book, the German library agreed to return it to Tel Aviv. Levin said the Germans displayed "a lot of good will."

"We are getting it back under the understanding that they held a stolen article without knowing. They thought returning it would be the right thing to do," Levin said.

The German National Library did not immediately comment Tuesday.

The identities of the thief and the dealers who bought and sold the manuscript remain unknown. "We're not interested. We only want to see the book back here," Levin said.

The manuscript was among the most valuable of the some 200 held at the Rambam Library, said the library's director, Avishai Elboim.

"We're happy to be getting back something we've been seeking for so long," Elboim said. "It's very rare to get something like this back — usually they cross the border and then just disappear."