U.S. To Return 'Priceless' Jewish Artifacts Taken During Holocaust to Places of Origin

Religious artifacts stolen from Jewish synagogues and homes in Europe during the Holocaust were seized by U.S. authorities on their way to auction, U.S. authorities said.

Authorities announced that they plan to return 17 recovered funeral scrolls, manuscripts and other historic records that were about to be put up for bid in New York City. They will be returned to their communities of origin in Romania, Hungary, Ukraine and Slovakia, where the items were traced to Jewish communities pillaged during Nazi rule, according to federal prosecutors in Brooklyn.

"Absent any provenance or documentation of conveyance from any survivors of those communities, there is no legitimate means by which the manuscripts and scrolls could have been imported into the United States," the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn said in its announcement of the seizure.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, continue below.

US returning Jewish artifacts stolen by Nazis
Jewish funeral scrolls, manuscripts and other historic records that were stolen by the Nazis during World War II were seized by the U.S. government before they were about to be put up for bid in New York City. They will be returned to their communities of origin, officials said. Pictured, a visitor looks at a painting at the 'Looting and Restitution' ('Raub und Restitution') exhibition at the Jewish Museum on September 18, 2008 in Berlin. The exhibition, detailed the looting of Jewish art collections and household objects by the Nazi regime before and during the Second World War. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelin Kasulis said they "contain priceless historical information that belongs to the descendants of families that lived and flourished in Jewish communities before the Holocaust."

The auction house, Kestenbaum & Company, said it had cooperated with authorities. The sale involved a private collector known for trying "to rescue and preserve Jewish historical documents that would otherwise have been lost," it said in a statement provided Friday.

When provenance claims were raised, the World Jewish Restitution Organization was consulted, "after which we withdrew the property from the proposed auction," the statement added.

The case has its origins from an era when members of the Jewish communities were banished to ghettos, robbed of their belongings and deported to Nazi death camps, court papers say. When survivors returned, they found their homes emptied of anything of value, including records dating from the mid-19th century.

When the auction was scheduled, a researcher spotted that it included a forgotten relic from the city of Cluj-Napoca in Romania — a bound registry of burials between 1836 and 1899. It had an estimated value of up to $7,000 and was described as a "manuscript written in Hebrew and Yiddish ... with elaborate, artistic title-page poetically extolling the three leaders of the Burial Society," court papers said.

The researcher, Robert Schwartz, told The New York Times earlier this year that it was a rare find worthy of proper preservation as a local museum exhibit.

"Very little belonging to the community survived World War II," Schwartz said. "It's surprising that the book surfaced at auction, because no one knew anything about its existence."