Bienstock PLLC Files Suit for Restitution of Historic “Bird’s Head Haggadah”

By: Martin Bienstock

On prominent display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is an exhibit of a 14th century illuminated manuscript titled: “The Birds’ Head Haggadah.” The Haggadah depicts human bodies with birds’ heads as they engage in Passover-related themes, from baking matzos and drinking wine, to a reenactment of Moses splitting the Reed Sea. A small plaque nearby advises visitors that:

The Haggadah was in the possession of Ludwig and Johanna Marum, Karlsruhe, Germany until the Nazi epoch.

Visitors are not informed, however, that the Haggadah was stolen from the Marum family in 1934, shortly after Dr. Ludwig Marum had been interned and then murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. They also are not informed that the Museum purchased the Haggadah for $600 in a backroom deal without obtaining any proof of ownership, from an impoverished high school teacher whose claim to lawful possession fell apart upon the lightest questioning. They are not informed that rather than search for the lawful owners, the Museum had removed and destroyed the flyleaf showing that the Haggadah had been in possession of the family for more than 75 years, or that the Museum had for years unlawfully refused to acknowledge the legitimate ownership claims issued by Dr. Marum’s daughter Elisabeth from her New York residence.

The Museum has repeatedly asserted that the Haggadah really “belonged to the Jewish People.” But the Haggadah, in fact, was private property that was and is still owned by the Marum family.

The Haggadah had been a family heirloom of Dr. Marum’s in-laws, who had presented it to Dr. Marum as a wedding gift. It was displayed proudly in his law offices as he became a successful lawyer and parliamentarian, and an outspoken advocate for human and civil rights.

a depiction of "The Bird's Head Haggada"

Dr. Marum was the last openly identified Jewish member of the Reichstag (the German parliament), a leader of the Social Democratic Party, and an outspoken nemesis of the Nazis. When the Nazis took power, he was one of their first targets. The Nazis not only murdered Dr. Marum, but, over time, also all-but-destroyed the family that Dr. Marum and his wife had built. Their daughter Elisabeth escaped and moved to New York. Their daughter Eva Brigitte was murdered by the Nazis in the Sobibor death camp. Her orphaned son was taken into the care of a Jewish couple, Holocaust survivors as he was, who brought him to the State of Israel and gave him a new identity as Eli Barzilai. The Marum’s son Hans Karl, after escaping Europe during the war, moved to East Germany and ended up under the watch of the infamous Stasi police.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the surviving Marum children and grandchildren, like so many others, did what they could to move on from the horror and create new lives for themselves. Then, in the late 20th century, a new chapter in the history of the Marum family began to unfold. Elisabeth became determined to spend the remainder of her life reviving her father’s memory and legacy. As a result of her efforts, a school was established in Karlsruhe bearing Dr. Marum’s name; the city erected a memorial to him, and two awards are given out annually in his name. His name is now familiar throughout the city of Karlsruhe.

Gradually, too, through Elisabeth’s efforts, the dispersed Marum family discovered its own kinship. When Elisabeth died in 1998, the four surviving grandchildren of Dr. Marum came together for the first time in honor of her funeral. They visited the site at which Dr. Marum had been murdered and the street which now bore his name. They acknowledged each other as family. Sixty years after his murder, the Marum family became re-united.

At the same time, the world increasingly was recognizing that property that had been stolen from families such as the Marums should be restituted to them to the greatest feasible extent. Dozens of countries, including the United States, Germany and Israel, adopted the 1998 Washington Conference Statement of Principles, and the 2009 Terezin Declaration. In 2016, Congress passed the Holocaust Expropriated Art Act (the “HEAR Act”), which suspended time-based legal defenses to claims for art lost because of Nazi persecution due to the unique and horrific circumstances of World War II.

Mr. Barzilai, who for years had declined even to acknowledge his Marum family roots, now was determined to assert his identity not only as a proud Israeli but also as a proud scion of the Marum family. He demanded that the Museum acknowledge the Marum family’s ownership of the Haggadah, even as he expressed the wish that the Haggadah remain on display at the Israel Museum.

Offered one final opportunity to make things right, the Museum declined. Accordingly, the surviving members have filed suit in New York Supreme Court for restitution of the Bird’s Head Haggadah and other relief.

Martin Bienstock, an attorney for Plaintiffs, said: “This case reflects the Marum family’s heroic efforts to survive and persevere as a family, and to honor the memory of the martyred German Jewish leader Dr. Ludwig Marum. The Birds’ Head Haggadah is a precious family heirloom that must be restituted to the family in his name.”

Copy of the Complaint filed in Court in this matter.

Additional coverage of the claim is available below:

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