The Book Thief
Did Zosa Szajkowski save precious documents from the Nazis, or did he steal the cultural patrimony of French Jews?
Szajkowski had another reason to send Judaica as well. By sending frequent updates on his research and his collecting, along with material gifts, to the YIVO directors in New York, Szajkowski filled his days with a sense of purpose and kept his loneliness at bay, connecting himself to the people he most admired and who, not incidentally, were best positioned to get him a visa to get out of France, where as an immigrant without French citizenship, he was far from secure, watching with envy as others around him left the country. As he wrote in a letter in 1941:
I would be able to collect so many things, but there’s no strength. There would perhaps be energy, but there’s no money, and no one wants to help. Wherever I turn, I get the same answer. “Look what a crazy guy is thinking about these days? Archives! As if archives could ever accomplish anything.” All people do is wait for visas, and in the meantime, they prepare banquets (Yes!) for those who are leaving, and they buy everything they can. They can go to hell.
Feeling isolated, inadequate, and increasingly nervous about his situation, Szajkowski compensated for his powerlessness by expressing contempt for those around him. This would eventually become a recognizable character trait, but at this moment in Carpentras, it was also his way of proving to the Tcherikowers that he, above all others, was worth saving, because he was the only one left who cared about archives. His special pleading worked; from the moment of their arrival in New York, the Tcherikowers worked tirelessly, pulling every string possible to get him one of the few coveted visas being issued in Marseilles in 1941. The goal of saving himself was in no particular tension with the goal of collecting documents; on the contrary, psychologically, they were interrelated.
In spring 1941, Szajkowski, with the help of the Tcherikowers and the Emergency Rescue Committee, finally managed to get a visa to come to the United States. After a difficult journey, including a brief incarceration in Oued Zem, a Vichy concentration camp in Morocco, Szajkowski arrived in New York on board the infamous banana freighter Navemar in September 1941.
But it was not long before he returned to Europe, bringing with him the same dedication to collecting Judaica that he demonstrated in 1940. Indeed, his will to collect appears to have been strengthened as the war continued and the threat it posed to Jewish life and culture became more apparent. In January 1943, Szajkowski joined the United States Army and was eventually assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper and interpreter. During his leave time in France in 1944–45, he sought out and recovered the parts of the YIVO archive he had been forced to leave behind and sent YIVO many packages of French Yiddish periodicals produced underground during the war. In April 1945, he sent YIVO some records of the Union Générale des Israélites de France (UGIF), the official body that regulated French Jewish life during the war. Although he does not mention the name of the person who entrusted the collection to him (saying only that “he trusts me completely”) or how or where the collection had survived, the letter does much to explain why Szajkowski thought it worthwhile to remove these materials from France. He wrote that he did not believe that France was “a secure spot for Jewish archives.” Moreover, he thought the UGIF papers were particularly important to preserve for posterity; these, he believed, would testify to the “unscrupulous doings” of its leaders, implying that he suspected they collaborated in various ways with the authorities.
These letters point to an evolution in Szajkowski’s collecting during the war. In 1941, Szajkowski saw himself as protecting Jewish cultural heritage from the disregard of the Jews of Carpentras by bringing the items along to America, where fate had now sent the Eastern European Jewish scholars who would study them and integrate them into Jewish histories. Although he does not seem to have considered that some might have seen this as stealing French Jews’ patrimony, we have no evidence at all that anyone in Carpentras objected to Szajkowski’s collecting in that early time. When he took the UGIF papers in 1945, though, Szajkowski stepped into more contested ground. His friend Marc Jarblum (1887–1972), the Zionist leader of the French Jewish immigrant association, the Fédération des Sociétés Juives de France, wanted the papers to stay in France, where they could be used in the process of communal reconstruction. Szajkowski respected Jarblum but had little faith in the broader French Jewish community. Promising his friend that he would send him copies later, he decided to ignore Jarblum’s wishes and sent the originals to YIVO.
Indeed, in his letters from 1944 to 1945, Szajkowski’s disenchantment with the French Jewish immigrant community he had left in 1941 is quite clear. In spite of all their suffering, he believed that the never-ending squabbling among communists, socialists, and Zionists that still consumed the immigrant Jewish world—what he scornfully called “politics”—would make it impossible to truly reconstruct Jewish life in France. Many of the immigrants from Eastern Europe were forgetting their Yiddish, a process hastened by the extreme conditions of the war. Moreover, their commitments to political movements, particularly on the left, had drawn them away from thinking about what was best for the Jews. As he wrote of his friends he found gathering at the Medem Club, the association of Jewish socialists (Bundists) in Paris:
They’re still talking a lot of politics and in actuality doing nothing to put damaged Jewish life in Paris back together—politics and more politics! A group of Jewish children still sit at the rue Vieille-du-Temple and talk about world problems, about everything in the world except Jewish problems.
Szajkowski also frequently expressed anti-French sentiments in his letters. This country he loved so much had proved to be almost as anti-Semitic as the rest of Europe. Such feelings likely also contributed to his decision to take these important records to America. It was not that he believed that there were no Jews left in France; it was rather that he did not trust them—much less the French authorities—to be good or even adequate stewards of Jewish history.
The belief that Europe was no longer a safe place for Jewish archives also informed Szajkowski’s collecting in the summer and fall of 1945, after the fall of the Third Reich, when he was reassigned to Allied-occupied Germany. Whereas in France he focused on material produced by Jews, primarily contemporary periodicals, in Germany he developed a passion for anti-Semitic books. A 1946 order from the Allied command would make such books illegal and subject to confiscation or destruction by the authorities, although evidence suggests that even then, the authorities did little to enforce the order. At this earlier moment, however, no policy was yet in place, and Szajkowski found materials of interest everywhere—in bookstores, abandoned buildings, and in the hands of individuals eager to trade for watches, chocolate, or cigarettes— and sent what he acquired on in vast quantities. In the extreme conditions of summer and fall 1945, this was easy to do, and such actions would not have stood out in the American military culture of World War II, when the collection of mementos, small and large, was a typical practice among soldiers.
Photographer Łukasz Baksik hunts repurposed matzevot, burial markers turned cornerstones and cobbles