Leff, Lisa Moses. “The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust”, (Oxford Series on History and Archives),) Oxford University Press, 2015.
Zosa Szajkowski, Historian
Once the Holocaust was over, Zosa Szajkowski, a Jewish historian, gathered up tens of thousands of documents from Nazi buildings in Berlin, and later, public archives and private synagogues in France, and moved them all, illicitly, to New York. We can only imagine what a task this was.
Lisa Moses Leff brings us Szajkowski’s story. He was born into a very poor family in Russian Poland, Szajkowski and he rose above that and had a career in Paris as a communist journalist. In the late 1930s, he saw the threats to the safety of the Jews in Europe and broke with the party and committed himself to defending his people in a new way, as a scholar associated with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
In 1941, he escaped from France and American army service and struggled to remake his life as a historian, living as a YIVO archivist in postwar New York. His scholarly output was tremendous nevertheless; he published many studies on French Jewish history that opened up new ways of thinking about Jewish emancipation, modernization, and the rise of modern anti-Semitism. While he was a scholar and recognized as such, what people did nit know was that there were documents that he stole and then later sold to American and Israeli research libraries, where they can be found today.
His story is part detective story and part analysis of the construction of history. It opens debates over the rightful ownership of contested Jewish archives and the powerful ideological, economic, and psychological forces that have made Jewish scholars care so deeply about preserving what they can of their past.
At the center here is Zosa Szajkowski, the immigrant-soldier-historian-thief. His tale is of a man’s desperate response to the cataclysms of the twentieth century. What we read here uncovers uncomfortable ambiguities in the archives, the very institutions entrusted with preserving our pasts. Author Leff gives us a creative view of the archive, of history and their interconnection.
Was Szajkowski a rescuer of all these documents and artifacts or was he a thief? Here it seems that he was both. As we read we must ask ourselves who owns the traces of the past and what does it mean when they are removed from their original context. The book is stunningly fascinating and beautifully written.. It leaves us with as many questions as it asks.