The Book Thief
Did Zosa Szajkowski save precious documents from the Nazis, or did he steal the cultural patrimony of French Jews?
Unlike many of his fellow soldiers, though, Szajkowski was not interested in the resale value of the items; these were for scholarly use. This is clear from how he treated some of the books he found. In order to fit them into reasonably sized packages, he eventually decided to rip chapters of interest from their bindings to send them on to YIVO. “Am I barbaric to do that?” he wrote to Riva Tcherikower.
Probably, but it’s the only way. I simply can’t send those books intact. They’d be lost in any case. So I’m doing my barbaric work with a clean conscience. Aside from that, is it barbaric to rip apart Nazi books? … Yesterday as I sat and tore pages out of a Nazi book … a German girl started crying. Her beastly Nazi soul couldn’t bear seeing a Jew calmly tearing pages out of a German book. I told her to keep working and stop her games.
Unlike many collectors who prized their materials for their value as objects, Szajkowski was interested only in their content. Nor did he value them as booty for future sale on the American market, since one could not sell a book in this condition. He was more than aware that this attitude made him different from other book lovers and could even be seen as barbaric. But he saw his actions as necessary if he were to serve the Jewish people through scholarship at this important moment of reconstruction. And alongside this justification was an unmistakable tone of triumphalism, shot through with irony, about how his treatment of these German books was being seen. He was the Jewish barbarian of the anti-Semitic German woman’s nightmares and simultaneously the American conqueror. Relishing his power as an American GI and conscious of his Jewishness, Szajkowski understood that ripping books apart and sending them on to YIVO was in effect putting the Germans in their place, destroying and re-contextualizing the things they so loved before their very eyes, just as they had done with Jewish objects.
What were Szajkowski’s motivations during the wartime period? Mostly they appear to have been ideological, in line with the Jewish resistance to fascism as conceived by people in his milieu. Like his friends at YIVO, Szajkowski was concerned with protecting the remnants of the Jewish past against all of the forces of destruction. Early in the war, in Vichy France, this concern had him focus on the neglect of assimilated French Jews. Later, when he returned in 1944 with the Americans, he focused also on repairing the damage wrought by the Nazis when they looted Jewish libraries across Europe in order to use these records to rewrite Jewish history as a story of the Jewish threat to European culture. Thinking of his work along these lines is what motivated Szajkowski to write so proudly about it in a 1944 article published for an American Jewish scholarly audience in the original series of Jewish Social Studies. Rather than writing that he had “received” or “bought” the materials he was using for the article in Carpentras in 1941 (either of which might have been accurate), he instead used the term “salvaged.” At the time, this term made as much sense to American Jewish scholars as it did to the Eastern European refugee scholars who had recently arrived in the country. It implied that he had saved these remnants of the Jewish past from those who treated them like garbage, even though none of what he took from Carpentras was in fact threatened in any immediate sense by the Nazis.
If Szajkowski was in conflict with at least one of the French Jewish leaders over the removal of archival material from France at the end of the war, he encountered less resistance from the American occupation authorities in Germany. This is an important context for understanding why Szajkowski’s work in this early period was read by Jewish scholars based in the United States as a work of rescue. In the fall of 1945 in Berlin, where Szajkowski was stationed, many other GIs were salvaging Nazi documents for all sorts of reasons—some in an official capacity for the upcoming war-crimes trials, others looking for mementos to keep or to sell. Although Allied command authorities forbade the removal of cultural treasures, particularly archives, from Germany, the military authorities were well aware of what Szajkowski was doing and, as happened with so many other prohibited items, they allowed him to send the material to YIVO through their mail system. In this regard, the positive publicity he was getting in the Jewish community in New York helped him convince the base censor in Germany to let him send more German books. He wrote to Riva Tcherikower, “The notice in the YIVO Bleter about my sending things did come in handy. I gave it to an officer who then had the packages pass through censorship with no trouble at all.”
American policy was clarified later, after Szajkowski had returned home. By 1946, leaders in the American occupation were treating looted Judaica as a special case and had decided that except for some of the Western European Jewish materials (such as the French materials, which were returned to France), most of the looted Judaica they found would not be returned to its country of origin. Instead, the Americans turned to a private American organization called Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) to handle the distribution of looted Judaica found in Germany for which no prewar owners could be identified or found. Guided by the same mentality that motivated Szajkowski, the directors of this organization, historian Salo Baron and philosopher Hannah Arendt, decided to move this “heirless” property out of Europe and into a variety of library collections in the United States and Israel. For Arendt especially, Judaica no longer belonged in Europe, where Jewish history had come to an end; now, the remnants of the Jewish past needed to be in the places where Jews lived and Jewish historians could make use of them.
At stake here was a question of an existential sort: In the wake of the recent war, where should Jewish things go? As Jews based in the United States began to get news of the catastrophe that had destroyed the vast majority of European Jews, this question took on a particular urgency. As historian Lucy Dawidowicz later wrote of her own work to recover looted books in American-occupied Germany:
The possibility that I might play a role, however minor, in the return of the YIVO library reawakened my old rescue fantasies. I no longer dreamed of rescuing Rivele and Kalman from the flames of war, but now I had become obsessed with saving as many remnants as I could of the Vilna YIVO’s books and manuscripts. I wanted to have my share in restoring them to their transplanted home in New York.
Dawidowicz may have been unusually articulate, writing here retrospectively, but her ideas were clearly shared by other Jews, including her friend Szajkowski, who came into contact with displaced Jewish things in Europe at the end of the war. Especially for cultural nationalists, Jewish things were a metonym for the lost Jewish people. The question of where they should go was therefore conceived by cultural activists in this milieu as a question about the Jewish future. Jewish cultural property was now the property of the Jewish people, a people understood by these same activists to be at the start of an exodus from Europe of historic proportions.
Photographer Łukasz Baksik hunts repurposed matzevot, burial markers turned cornerstones and cobbles