The Book Thief
Did Zosa Szajkowski save precious documents from the Nazis, or did he steal the cultural patrimony of French Jews?
Szajkowski was devoted to a form of Jewish historical scholarship that made preserving as well as presenting documentation central. He embraced that world of Jewish scholarship shortly after he broke with the Jewish section of the Communist Party in France in the late 1930s, and he brought to it the same faith usually reserved for religion or political ideology. He had come to reject all of the politics of the interwar Jewish world—socialism, Zionism, assimilationism—seeing each as a rejection of Jewishness in one way or another. Instead of politics, these scholars believed in a new kind of Jewish cultural nationalism that embraced scholarship as a way to preserve Jewish life at a time of crisis. Collecting was an essential part of their mission as well. Working in the spirit of the historian Simon Dubnow, these scholars saw collecting remnants of the Jewish past as a way to preserve the past and renew Jewish culture through studying it.
Szajkowski encountered these Yiddish-speaking intellectuals in Paris rather than Eastern Europe, where they had all been born. He himself was born Yehoshua Frydman to a poor Jewish family in the Polish town of Zareby-Koscielne (Zaromb in Yiddish) in 1911 and had joined older siblings when he came to Paris in 1927. By his own account, he had little in the way of formal education—he had attended a Yidishe folkshul, or Yiddish-language secular primary school, in his hometown as a boy and then moved to Warsaw for a time, where he lived and studied at the Rabbinic Teacher’s Seminary. Yet he was drawn to writing, and by 1934 was a regular contributor to the Naye prese, the Yiddish language communist daily in Paris. His articles appeared under his real name, Szajko Frydman (Szajko had been his nickname since childhood and was the name he used on all official documents throughout his life), and at least three pseudonyms (Z. Szajkowski; Sh. Feld; and Tchapchinski), as was then the custom in the Yiddish press.
In 1937 or 1938, Szajkowski broke with the Communists and moved away from journalism altogether. By that time, he had become interested in writing works of scientific history based on documents. He learned these methods from Elias Tcherikower, a Russian-born Jew then living in Paris who, assisted by his wife Riva, was the head of the Historical Section of the Vilna-based Yiddish Scientific Institute, or YIVO. Founded in 1925, YIVO was dedicated to preserving as well as studying Jewish culture in all of its complexity. To this end, the founders created both a scholarly center for advancing Yiddish scholarship in Vilna and established a network of zamlers (collectors), volunteers who collected all sorts of Jewish artifacts. The zamler program had a twofold agenda rooted in Yiddish cultural nationalism: to preserve the Jewish past for memory and study, and to interest the Jewish people in their own past. The Tcherikowers were interested in both aspects. They themselves had amassed a large archive of materials collected across Europe that they kept in the Paris apartment they had moved to when they emigrated from Berlin in 1933, and they also collaborated with other scholars in producing works of historical scholarship in Yiddish.
Based on the correspondence they left behind, it appears that Szajkowski met the Tcherikowers around 1935. By the late 1930s he was working in the orbit of the Paris section of YIVO and seriously pursuing his historical studies, contributing five out of the 19 articles that constituted Tcherikower’s Yidn in Frankraykh collection, more than any other single author. When the war broke out, most of the members of the Historical Section of YIVO fled Paris. In the fall of 1940, the Tcherikowers themselves left France for New York, where YIVO was being reconstituted. Unable to take their entire archive with them, they entrusted part of it to Szajkowski, who had joined the French Foreign Legion and had been wounded gravely in battle in June 1940. In September, just before leaving for Lisbon, they met with Szajkowski, who was convalescing in Carpentras in southern France. He promised to take care of the papers they could not take with them and to continue the work of YIVO in France.
Szajkowski cared deeply about safeguarding the materials in his possession. His correspondence with the Tcherikowers in 1940–41 speaks to their growing closeness and to a shared, near-obsessive concern for the safety of these archives, and it chronicles their many attempts to get the materials to New York. Already before the war, and certainly after the fall of France, they had embraced a conception of Jewish civilization that did not recognize national borders. Taking materials relevant to Jewish history from one country to another was as natural as the flow of Jews themselves from one country to another as they sought safe haven. The history of the Jews would be written as that of a single civilization, by Jews wherever they lived. Thus, it was the Jews, not the states that governed them, who had the legitimate claim on the archives these scholars were assembling.
This perspective on Jewish history comes through in the research and the collecting work Szajkowski did when he was in Carpentras from September 1940 to May 1941, waiting to obtain a visa to enter the United States. His research in local libraries bore fruit in the form of a study of the all-but-extinct Jewish dialect in the Comtat Venaissin region where he found himself. He examined Judeo-Provençal as a Jewish language to be considered in comparison to Jewish languages that developed elsewhere, such as Yiddish or Judeo-Spanish. He was also an unofficial zamler for YIVO, working on his own to collect remnants of the Jewish past in the area to be archived for safekeeping and study. To do this, he befriended Jews in the area, and before long he acquired items of historical interest from them, including such rare materials as Hebrew grammars from the 16th to 18th centuries, prints from the end of the 15th century, and an 18th-century pinkas (communal record book). He also acquired objects such as a scroll of the biblical book of Esther, a Torah crown, and a synagogue circumcision chair, sending them along to YIVO in New York.
Given what we know of his later collecting, one cannot help but wonder if Szajkowski stole the materials he gathered in Carpentras. The only record we have is his correspondence with the Tcherikowers, a problematic source for this question since they provide little information about the transactions and focus rather on the utility of the materials for historians. Szajkowski did say that the numerous items from the local synagogue that he donated to YIVO had come to him through a Mlle. Mossé, the unmarried adult daughter of the recently deceased synagogue beadle. These items appear to have been gifts, but we cannot know why Mlle. Mossé would have decided to give them away. Perhaps she, like many Jews elsewhere in Europe, saw the Jewish population around her dwindling and believed in the project of the zamlers, which Szajkowski surely described to her. Or perhaps she saw the coming storm, with the northern half of France already occupied by the Nazis and the fate of Jews in Carpentras uncertain, since the town had come under the control of the collaborationist Vichy regime. In any event, Szajkowski does not appear to have paid her for the materials. The only item he seems to have purchased was the 18th-century Carpentras pinkas, which, he reported in a letter to the Tcherikowers, had been held in the house of an old man who would not part with it unless he was paid.
Whatever else, Szajkowski—Steeped as he was in the culture of YIVO—clearly saw collecting as a way to take valuable Judaica to a place where people would study it. In 1940-41, he had no concept of a particularly French Jewish patrimony separate from the rest of Jewish history; he saw Judaica as the material remnant of a collective Jewish past that could be gathered up and taken anywhere that Jews lived. And if the best place for such materials was a place where people understood the meaning and value of these remnants, Carpentras at that moment was certainly not such a place. As he described it, Jewish life was dying out in Carpentras; even those Jews who had items of historical interest in their possession were doing nothing with them, and their children were leaving the region.
Photographer Łukasz Baksik hunts repurposed matzevot, burial markers turned cornerstones and cobbles