The Book Thief: How Stolen Nazi Documents Made Their Way to American Jewish Archives
Did Zosa Szajkowski save precious documents from the Nazis, or did he steal the cultural patrimony of French Jews?
This association of Jewish people with Jewish cultural treasures was not just a psychological phenomenon forged in grief. Archives, books, and other such cultural treasures have long been associated with nations and with sovereignty, and the association became particularly powerful in the 20th century. In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida points out that the very meaning of “archive” comes from the Greek term arkheion, which referred to the home of the archon, or ruler; this was not just a private residence but also the house where official documents of public importance were domiciled. It is the task of the sovereign, he explains, to unify, identify, classify, and consign to the archives the documents deemed important for public memory. For nations with states, cultural treasures such as archives have thus usually been protected with the tools provided by statehood, and they have been domiciled at the seat of state power, however that has been conceived. Yet at the war’s end, there was no sovereign Jewish power, and no single, agreed-upon place that was considered “home”: This was an archive without an archon or an arkheion.
Szajkowski was first publicly denounced as an archive thief in Strasbourg, on April 13, 1961. By then, he was an exceedingly well-published historian, although working outside the academy. Jewish Studies had not yet entered the university system in full force in either France or the United States, so his non-professorial status was in itself not unusual for a Jewish historian at the time. His association with YIVO continued to give him the legitimacy he needed to pursue his scholarship, as it did for many refugee scholars like him. Since 1946 he had worked at YIVO in New York as an archivist and researcher and would remain there until his death in 1978. His arrangement there allowed him frequent leaves of absence to pursue his research in France, and through the 1950s he published an average of seven scholarly articles a year, all based on original research, focusing primarily on the emancipation and modernization of the Jews in France in the 18th and 19th centuries. These articles depended on sources he cited as having seen all over France, particularly in regional (departmental and municipal) public archives. In one of his longest and most important studies, Autonomy and Communal Jewish Debts (1959), he cites documents held in the public archives (archives départementales, archives municipales, and the archives nationales) in Arles, Altkirsch, Avignon, Bordeaux, Carpentras, Cavaillon, Colmar, L’Isle-sur-Sorgue, Metz, Montpellier, Paris, and Strasbourg. The study has important implications for understanding antisemitism in modern France and has served to nuance the way emancipation has been conceived for generations of historians.
To Szajkowski himself, though, a study’s success was not to be measured by its argument. For him, good scholarship was to be judged on its sources, and in Autonomy, as elsewhere, much more space is devoted to presenting new sources than to developing the argument or explaining its stakes. Indeed, for Szajkowski, the writing of Jewish history had long suffered from a lack of attention to the sources in favor of big arguments, which to his thinking were little more than “bombast” or “apologetics.” His devotion to the sources as the key to history made the archives absolutely central to Szajkowski’s work, and the research involved in writing his historical studies must have been grueling, especially for someone trying to hold down a nonacademic, low-paying job in New York. It was on one of those research trips to France that Szajkowski was caught, red-handed, stealing documents from the Strasbourg Municipal Archives.
His time in the city was limited, and there was much to be seen, so he had asked permission to stay late with his materials after the archives closed on the evening of April 13, 1961. As they often did for researchers, the archivists locked up but let him take the documents he was working on across the hall to the municipal library, located in the same building. At around 6:30 p.m., a librarian, Mme. Solveen, saw him tearing pages out of a volume of bound documents from the 18th century. The document he was removing at that very moment concerned, somewhat ironically, a law expelling Jews without a fixed address from Alsace, issued in 1784 by the Conseil Souverain d’Alsace.
Opening Szajkowski’s briefcase, Solveen found several other documents he had taken that day. She called the chief archivist, Philippe Dollinger (himself a noted historian), who together with the concierge accompanied Szajkowski back to his room at the Hôtel Royal, where they retrieved 73 additional documents and 21 printed pamphlets belonging to the Strasbourg Municipal Archives. They confiscated these but then, strangely, left him alone in the room rather than having him arrested.
In the morning, Szajkowski was gone, having escaped across the border to Germany during the night. In his hotel room, police found 70 more documents, none of which were from the Strasbourg Municipal Archives. Some were identified and sent back to other institutions in France; others were never identified and now form the small Frydmann-Szajkowski Collection of the Strasbourg Municipal Archives.
The city did press charges, after archive officials learned in June that Szajkowski had earned £1,160, then equivalent to about $3,400, by selling items stolen from French archives to one of the most important Judaica book dealers of the day, Albi Rosenthal, who was based in Oxford, England. The unsuspecting Rosenthal had sent his newest Judaica catalog to the archives, and officials were dismayed to see items from their own collection on the list. They turned the catalog over to police investigators, who determined that Szajkowski had sold the dealer materials that had come from Bordeaux, Avignon, Carpentras, Aix-en-Provence, Marseilles, Strasbourg, Metz, and Paris, and noted that these were the same towns the scholar had visited on research trips in 1950, 1955, and 1961. They thus concluded that he had been stealing from French public archives for a long time—a habitual criminal rather than a poor, struggling historian who had made a mistake in judgment.
Rosenthal, eager to protect his reputation, traveled to New York to talk to Szajkowski. The historian vehemently denied having committed the crime, though he refused to return to France to defend his innocence because, he said, of the terrible pain he was then experiencing from the near-fatal wound he had suffered in the war. The sources don’t tell us how Rosenthal reacted to Szajkowski’s insistence on his innocence and wartime heroism, but the Strasbourg investigators saw it as irrelevant and Szajkowski as an outlaw. Nevertheless, the city decided it was not worth the expense to extradite Szajkowski from New York. So, in 1963, Szajkowski was convicted of theft in absentia, sentenced to three years in prison, and fined 5,000 francs. It is all but certain that Szajkowski never returned to France after 1961, thus ending his career as a collector of French Judaica.
Photographer Łukasz Baksik hunts repurposed matzevot, burial markers turned cornerstones and cobbles