Jewish Family Fights for Ownership of the Israel Museum’s Prized Passover Haggadah

Descendents of its previous owner claim the Birds' Head Haggadah was looted by the Nazis.

Illustrations from the Birds Head Haggadah. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah—the world’s oldest illustrated Passover manuscript—is currently the center of a controversy, as a Jewish family is claiming ownership to the document, currently housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

German-Jewish lawmaker Ludwig Marum once owned the manuscript, but he lost possession of the object when he was persecuted by the Nazis. His grandchildren assert that it was later sold to the predecessor of the museum without their consent.

While the Israel Museum agrees that the family did once own the prized Haggadah, they are demanding documentation regarding its whereabouts between 1933, when the Nazis arrested Marum, and 1946, when the manuscript resurfaced and another German-Jewish man, Hermann Kahn, sold it in Jerusalem.

Given the circumstances, it is naturally difficult for the family to provide proof that the Bird’s Head Haggadah was stolen. However, one of Marum’s grandsons, Eli Barzilai, says he has procured documents from a German archive that confirm that Kahn did not have the financial ability to legally obtain the manuscript.

Birds Head Haggadah

The Bird’s Head Haggadah. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“Hermann Kahn could not have been able to buy the Haggadah … because of unending financial difficulty,” Barzilai told AP, in an interview in his Jerusalem home.

While the family wants the manuscript to remain on view at the museum, they are seeking financial compensation and asking that it be renamed the Marum Haggadah.

The Bird’s Head Haggadah is a medieval illuminated manuscript, written in Southern Germany around 1300 by the scribe Menahem. It has long been the source of mystery for its unusual illustrations of bird-headed figures preparing Passover traditions.

The museum says it is open to continuing the conversation with Barzilai regarding Haggadah’s ownership history, but has largely considered the case closed since 1984, when Marum’s daughter wrote to the museum saying that, athough Kahn “had no right sell it,” the family wished for the manuscript to remain at the museum “for the benefit of the public.”


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