By Lisa Moses Leff (Guest Contributor)
I first heard of Zosa Szajkowski (1911-78) as a student of French Jewish history. Szajkowski is a founding father of the field, author of almost two hundred academic studies. And yet, if you mention his name in the archives, you will probably hear a disturbing story: while doing his research, he also raided public archives and private synagogues across France, taking thousands of the documents that interested him back to New York. There, he used the material for his articles, and eventually sold much of it to libraries in the United States for a tidy profit.
The results of the thefts and sales are staggering. Most of the vast holdings of French Jewish papers that are now held in American Jewish research libraries—tens of thousands of pages in all—seem to have been purchased from Szajkowski in the 1950s and 60s. But if these facts are well known today, the motives are less so. What led this respected historian to become an archive thief?
Szajkowski first felt the lure of the archives as a young Polish immigrant living in Paris in the 1930s. Among Yiddish-speaking intellectuals in interwar Europe, collecting old papers that documented the Jewish past was part of an increasingly important nationalist project. Migration and modernization were transforming Jewish life beyond recognition, and in 1925, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was founded to preserve Jewish culture through scholarship. Szajkowski was inspired by YIVO’s project, and devoted himself to gathering material for its archives.
When World War II came, Szajkowski escaped to New York and joined the U.S. Army. As a soldier, distraught with what he saw, he grew more passionate than ever about collecting for YIVO, hoping the papers would help Jewish intellectuals make sense of what had happened and rebuild. He sought out rare documents about the persecution, sending everything he could to YIVO in New York. Even though much of his collecting was technically against Army regulations, he was treated as a hero in New York for rescuing these remnants from the wreckage of European Jewish life.
But then, after the war, this rescuer became a thief. What had started as a passion to collect became a compulsion to steal, as the psychologically unbalanced and financially strapped historian sought to make his way in America. Lacking a PhD and even a high school degree, he was never able to get an academic job, but he remained as dedicated to scholarship as ever. His buyers were eager for the rare documents he sold, seeking to help the struggling scholar and also to build their collections.
Szajkowski’s story is by turns heroic and sordid, and only makes sense when considered in light of the Holocaust and its aftermath. It reveals the powerful ideological, economic, and psychological forces that made the Jewish scholars of his era care so deeply about preserving the remnants of their past.
Lisa Moses Leff is author of The Archive Thief: the Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust (Oxford, 2015). She is Associate Professor of History at American University in Washington, D.C. For more information, see http://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/leff.cfm