The “Birds’ Head Haggadah” (c. 1300), handwritten on parchment in dark brown ink and tempera with square Ashkenazic script, in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (all images courtesy Israel Museum Jerusalem)

The four grandchildren of Ludwig Marum, a Jewish politician murdered by Nazis, are suing the Israel Museum in Jerusalem over an illuminated manuscript allegedly stolen from the family during World War II. It is the first time a museum in Israel has been sued over an object stolen during the Holocaust.

The Marum family is suing for the return of the “Birds’ Head Haggadah,” a unique medieval version of the prayer book used during Passover to read the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The manuscript, produced in South Germany around 1300, displays images of Jewish figures with the heads of birds, of which few examples exist. It also depicts rituals like making matzah and blessing food and wine, something other historic Jewish prayer books do not. The museum calls it the first known manuscript of its kind.

The lawsuit, filed in the New York State Supreme Court on April 11, attributes its jurisdiction under New York law to the sale of a “Birds’ Head Haggadah” pop-up book (which is sold online for $40) and a 1988 New York Public Library exhibition of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts to which the museum lent the work. The suit also cites the New York-based Friends of Israel Museum’s multi-million dollar funding of Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.

According to the lawsuit, the manuscript was gifted to Ludwig Marum as a wedding gift by his in-laws around 1910. Marum was a Jewish member of the German parliament and vocal opponent of the Nazi party. In 1933, he was taken into custody and shamed in a public parade and then deported to a concentration camp along with six other members of his Social Democrats party. He was killed the next year in Kislau, a concentration camp for German political opponents of the Nazis.

Marum’s wife and three children fled to Paris. All were interned in multiple concentration camps throughout the next decade. Eventually, Marum’s son Hans escaped to Mexico and his wife Johanna and eldest daughter Elisabeth to New York. The youngest daughter, Eva, was killed in a concentration camp in 1943.

Before she was captured, Eva took her infant son to an orphanage to ensure his safety. The young Eli Barzilai was eventually taken to Israel, grew up on a kibbutz, and became a decorated member of the Israeli military. Barzilai, who still lives in Israel, is one of the four plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. (The other three grandchildren live in Germany and Connecticut.)

It was during the period after Marum’s murder and before the family secured passage to France that the Haggadah was purportedly stolen. The lawsuit alleges that an unscrupulous school teacher named Hermann Kahn, who swore allegiance to Adolph Hitler when the Nazis rose to power, took the manuscript directly from Elisabeth Marum’s nearby apartment in Karlsruhe or acquired it through other means. The family did not know Kahn, and according to testimonies of other Karlsruhe residents, Kahn had a stash of stolen art and valuables.

Over a decade later in 1946, Kahn sold the Haggadah to the museum for $600 (around $9,000 today). The lawsuit values the “Birds’ Head Haggadah” at $10 million. Last year, another illustrated Hebrew manuscript, also from 13th-14th century South Germany, sold for a record $8.3 million at Sotheby’s.

“The $600 sales price was well-below market, and consistent with a back-room, black-market transaction in stolen goods, which can not constitute, under any applicable law, a transfer of title,” the lawsuit reads.

“When the Museum purchased the Haggadah, it knew or should have known that the Haggadah had been stolen,” the plaintiffs continue. “It then failed in its duty to investigate the provenance of the Haggadah, and actively took steps to prevent others from learning the true ownership of the Haggadah.”

The lawsuit cites internal museum memos and a testimony by an associate of Ludwig Marum. It also notes that the naming of the book suggests that the museum doubted its provenance — medieval manuscripts are most often named for their patron or owner.

A page from the “Birds’ Head Haggadah”

In 1984, the eldest Marum daughter Elisabeth visited the Israel Museum. A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that she “wrote a letter on behalf of the family that the Haggadah should continue to be part of the Museum’s collection ‘for the benefit of the public'” and requested that the label be updated to recognize the family. It now reads, “The Haggadah was in the possession of Ludwig and Johanna Marum, Karlsruhe, Germany, until the Nazi epoch.”

The grandchildren, however, take issue with the museum’s text, which describes the Marums’ ownership of the Haggadah in the past tense. They believe this phrasing caused them financial damages by “diminish[ing] the value of their ownership” should they choose to sell the Haggadah and invoke related loss of income from sales of the Haggadah pop-up book.

In an email to Hyperallergic, the family’s lawyer, Meir Heller, said: “As for Museum’s claiming that one of plaintiff’s mother agreed to give the Haggadah to the Museum: It is unfortunate that the Museum is clinging to such justifications. The museum well knows that Elisabeth considered suing the museum, and refused the Museum’s requests to relinquish the family’s ownership of the Haggadah. She also clarified to the Museum that she is not in a position to relinquish family ownership.”

Marum’s heirs first requested compensation from the museum in 2016 and hired the same lawyer who recovered Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), which was stolen by the Nazis from Austria. At the time, the family wanted the manuscript to remain in the museum and was “asking for less than $10 million,” Barzilai told the Art Newspaper.

But now, the family is requesting the manuscript’s return.

They are also asking to be paid for defamation, legal costs, and “the fees and costs to which they are entitled by statute” and “further relief as the Court deems just and proper.” Numeric values are not specified.

“The fact that Elisabeth believed, as her father Dr. Ludwig Marum did, as do the heirs today, in allowing the public to access to the Haggadah, does not give the museum any basis to claim ownership to the family property, then, or today,” Meir told Hyperallergic. “Other institutions are worthy to display the Haggadah to the public.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.