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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A Hungarian rabbi said on Tuesday he had uncovered 103 Torah scrolls stolen from Hungarian Jews during World War Two and stashed in a Russian library, adding he planned to restore and return them to the Jewish community.
Slomo Koves, chief rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, said he had found the scrolls while following up a previous recovery of Hungarian war loot in the Lenin Scientific Library in Nizhny Novgorod, 400 km (240 miles) east of Moscow.
In 2006, Russia returned to Hungary more than 100 antique books, including some from the 15th century, that had been brought to the same library in Nizhny Novgorod from the Sarospatak Calvinist College in eastern Hungary.
The Torah scrolls, which are still in Russia, have a long way to go until they too can be returned, not the least because Russian authorities have just begun to consider what to do with them, Koves said. He said he wants to restore them anyway, and worry later about where they wind up in a permanent home.
Koves told a press conference in a Budapest synagogue that he had no doubt the Torah scrolls had belonged to Hungarian Jews, although they had been stripped of markings that would indicate their origins clearly.
He showed photographs and videos of the scrolls, some of which he said were centuries old and in poor condition.
He called it an historic find and added that once the scrolls are restored he would try to take them on tour around the world, including to the United States and Israel.
"I think it's the first time in history when such a large collection of Judaica with 100 Torah scrolls in one place was discovered," Koves said.
"And the fact that those scrolls are from Hungary has a special significance this year, which is the 70th year from 1944 when most Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz."
More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews perished in World War II, most of them deported to concentration camps in a two-month stretch in 1944. Virtually every city in Hungary except Budapest lost nearly all its Jews.
About 100,000 Jews, mostly in the capital, escaped the deportations and today Budapest is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, Koves told Reuters.
"For us, finding these Torah scrolls that were connected to our forefathers has a great significance of showing continuity in this community," he said.
Koves said Russian restitution law was partial to artefacts that had belonged to religious groups or anti-Nazi groups, so ownership of the scrolls would not be hard to determine, but saving the scrolls was more important than owning them.
"For seven decades they have been laying naked in those archives, while their only value is for a Jewish community to see them and use them every day," he said.
"We have initiated talks with the Russians, and we asked them that before we even talk about ownership we be allowed to restore them."
Koves said he had secured the support of the Hungarian government and the U.S. State Department, and that the regional authorities in Nizhny Novgorod were now taking his request to save the scrolls more seriously than before.
"Right now we're not speaking about the ownership of the Torah scrolls because for the Jewish community that's not the most important question. Those Torah scrolls spiritually belong to us and no-one can take it away from us... The most important question is who is going to use these Torah scrolls."
Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Michael Roddy and Tom Heneghan