The Book Thief
Did Zosa Szajkowski save precious documents from the Nazis, or did he steal the cultural patrimony of French Jews?
This essay is adapted from “Rescue or Theft? Zosa Szajkowski and the Salvaging of French Jewish History after World War II,” originally published in the journal Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society by Indiana University Press.
In 1968, Victor Berch, the Special Collections librarian at Brandeis University, was approached by the historian Zosa Szajkowski, who had a stack of archival documents for sale. The documents, Szajkowski said, were rare materials that documented the history of Jews in France. When asked where they came from, Szajkowski said that he had salvaged them during World War II, when as an American soldier he had “liberated them from boxcars” and then smuggled them to America for safety. Berch purchased the material, now called the Consistoire Central Israélite de France Collection. Its several thousand documents cover almost 200 years of French Jewish history.
Brandeis was not the only American Jewish research library to buy rare French Judaica in the 1950s and 60s. Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research also have substantial collections. Since they were first acquired, these records have been used as sources by dozens of scholars interested in French Jewish history. In the 1960s and 1970s, these salvaged documents of the French Jewish past became the basis for the first academic works of modern French Jewish history by authors like Arthur Hertzberg, Phyllis Cohen Albert, Frances Malino, and Paula Hyman. To the degree that it is possible to trace the provenance of the tens of thousands of such documents now held in American research libraries, most of them appear indeed to have been purchased from Szajkowski in the 1950s and 1960s.
Thirty-five years after his death, Szajkowski remains a controversial figure. A pioneer in modern French Jewish history, he wrote scores of articles in the field, most on topics no one had researched before and many of which are still regularly cited by scholars. Yet he never earned a doctorate or held an academic post, and many dismiss him as a mere amateur.
Even more controversy surrounds his passion for French Judaica. Over a period of decades, Szajkowski acquired tens of thousands of books and documents of historical interest about Jews from various sources in France. Why did he collect them, and why did he later sell them? The rumors about Szajkowski that circulate in the archives today tend to cast his story in black-and-white terms as either a heroic tale of rescue or a sordid tale of theft. In wartime, his transfers were read as a rescue effort, justified by those in his own world as a valiant response to the catastrophe of the war and the Holocaust. By 1961, when he was caught stealing documents from the Strasbourg Municipal Archives, his actions were condemned as theft, a crime against the city of Strasbourg, and an affront to the norms of historical and archival practice.
Szajkowski’s activities were remarkably broad in scope, but they were not unique. Indeed, they constituted but one part of a much larger moving of Jewish cultural property out of Europe during World War II and especially in its aftermath. Although numerous studies documenting that activity have been written, for the most part the phenomenon has been celebrated as a successful rescue effort in ways that obscure the contestations, illegalities, and ambiguities involved. But how long did those extraordinary times last? Anecdotal evidence suggests that for some Europeans, they never ended; these people were never able to reintegrate into society and continued to live in hiding for the rest of their lives. Studies focused specifically on Jewish Holocaust survivors have similarly argued that for some minority, it was difficult to abandon the alternative moral framework they had developed in those years. (This may well have been the case for Szajkowski, though it is impossible to know.) But by 1961, because the archives themselves (both French and American) had returned to business as usual, Szajkowski’s actions in the Strasbourg Municipal Archives could not be considered anything but theft.
Even so, when we examine the images of Szajkowski in this later moment, we can see larger truths about the archives that are usually hidden. Even after things had returned to normal, significant problems still plagued the French institutions holding the Judaica collections that Szajkowski took. These problems had their origins in Nazi pillaging, incomplete restitution processes, scant postwar resources, and the simple difficulties of putting the archives back together after the war. In that context, archivists and historians reacted to Szajkowski’s thefts by immortalizing them in legend. These stories about Szajkowski as a thief spoke to a larger reality of disorder and victimization that long outlasted the German occupation.
In the United States, Szajkowski’s actions were seen in light of a very different but equally pervasive mythology. By the end of World War II, Judaica librarians in America had come to think of their libraries as saviors and preservers of a European Jewish patrimony that had barely escaped total destruction. Seeing their own work within the framework of rescue led them to perceive Szajkowski as a rescuer as well.
On September 26, 1978, Zosa Szajkowski was found dead, having drowned in the bathtub of his room in the Taft Hotel in New York City. By then, his thefts from libraries seemed clearly pathological in nature, chronic, and increasingly risky. The week before, he had been caught on film stealing rare pamphlets from the Judaica room at the New York Public Library in an organized police sting operation. Facing not only criminal prosecution but also the certain end of his career as a historian and an archivist, Szajkowski took his own life.
In the wake of the suicide, rumors circulated, painting Szajkowski as a career archive thief. These rumors are based in fact: Since the war, Szajkowski had indeed been taking documents of historical value from Europe to the United States. But the illegal transfer of European Judaica had been read during and just after the war as a mission to rescue Jewish cultural heritage. Repeating similar actions through the 1950s and again as late as 1978 made Szajkowski into what many saw as an irredeemable thief. And yet those later actions had their roots in Szajkowski’s earlier experience in the war, at a time when taking Judaica out of Europe illegally seemed more than justified, since these materials would be needed to rebuild Jewish life after the catastrophe. What Szajkowski’s actions meant changed as the context changed.
Zosa Szajkowski’s transfer of Jewish cultural material from Europe to America began during World War II. At the time, his collecting was well known in the world of Yiddish-speaking scholars of Jewish culture, society, and history who made their way from Eastern Europe to Western Europe and eventually to New York in the difficult period between the two world wars. He was by no means alone in his pursuit of endangered Judaica. Indeed, by mid century, collecting documentation had become an important part of the Jewish response to tragedy, particularly among Eastern European Jews, as Samuel Kassow’s recent book on Emmanuel Ringelblum has shown. But though Szajkowski’s activity was welcomed by many in his circle who understood it to be part of the Jewish resistance to persecution, it did not go uncontested. Rather, it represented a particular perspective on where the Jewish future lay, and he marshaled the support of American authorities to help build that future. Others, with a different view of the viability of European Jewry—even those who shared the commitment to preserving the material remnants of its past—would see these transfers in quite a different light.
Photographer Łukasz Baksik hunts repurposed matzevot, burial markers turned cornerstones and cobbles