“Usually if a person dies, he is remembered by his community and his family,” he said. “But in the case of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe, there was nothing left of them — even their documents were robbed and disappeared. You cannot reconstitute the history of a community without documents. We don’t even have a list of their names.”
While historic Jewish communal registers do occasionally come up for sale, it is unusual for so many to be offered at auction at once, said Jonathan Fishburn, a dealer in Jewish and Hebrew books in London. The market is generally confined to museums and libraries, though some private collectors with a connection to a specific region would also be potential customers, he said. Kestenbaum said that of about 30,000 auction lots he has handled in his career, only about 100 involved such records, which he described as crucial for genealogical research.
“It’s about saving history,” said Gideon Taylor, chair of operations at the World Jewish Restitution Organization. The newly discovered registry “is a treasure and a rare window into the past,” he said. “Every name on that list matters.”
The discovery of these documents is “symbolic of a wider challenge,” he said. “How do we make sure these pieces of history do not get traded? We want to make sure it gives us a road map going forward. We will be reaching out to auction houses in a more systematic way and looking for partnerships.”