The Book Thief
Did Zosa Szajkowski save precious documents from the Nazis, or did he steal the cultural patrimony of French Jews?
The stories that circulated in France in the wake of the theft reveal how the transfer of Jewish cultural items out of Europe was being understood after the French archives had returned to their normal functioning, more than 15 years after the extreme conditions of World War II and the liberation. The investigators themselves saw Szajkowski’s actions simply as those of a thief. Initially, Dollinger appears to have assumed the theft was perpetrated to facilitate research; later, after seeing Rosenthal’s Judaica catalog, he and the investigators came to believe it was in fact for profit. Either way, there was no question that this was a crime.
Nevertheless, another set of interpretations, grounded in a powerful mythology rooted in the wartime experience, clung to the Jewish archives. Rumors circulated, questioning what had appeared to be a straightforward story. We can catch a glimpse of those rumors in the local newspaper report on the incident:
If we’re to believe what we hear in certain parts of Strasbourg, the “thief” was no stranger. In fact, the archive employees often received this visitor. It seems that this person might be a certain historian who answers to the name of Frydman. He’d be of Polish origin. His books, well respected in fact, can be found in bookshops. He’d have two accomplices, Soza and Takowski. They believe—maybe with too much haste—that the three men, who weren’t arrested, were looking to fill out the dossiers for the Eichmann trial. It’s quite hard to say if this is the case. Nevertheless, knowing that Interpol has been brought in, we can assume that the investigators will be looking for these three individuals abroad, where they would have gone.
Here documentation and history writing are linked in a mythology positing that Jewish archives were permanently frozen in the extraordinary circumstances of the end of the war. The reporter makes this link when he theorizes that the Israeli state was sending agents all over the world to comb archives for proof of Nazi crimes and then steal them to support their case at the Eichmann trial, then under way in Jerusalem. This theory was, of course, highly unlikely. The article itself had correctly reported that the documents that were stolen were from the 18th century and thus had nothing to do with Nazi crimes. A second error enhanced the mistaken interpretation. By turning Szajkowski into a gang of three (Frydman, Soza, and Takowski), a simple theft became a Zionist conspiracy, and archive hunting became part of the Jewish struggle for justice and revenge. A Jewish theft from the archive was framed as a rescue mission, outside the law but justifiable as an act of heroism for the Jewish people, not unlike the Mossad’s daring, and illegal, capture of Adolf Eichmann the previous year.
Yet other French archivists who caught wind of the story would not frame it in those terms at all. On the contrary, for them Szajkowski’s thefts were those of an American predator, taking advantage of the vulnerability and weakness of their institutions. This was the perspective of the small group of French Jewish historians and archivists who joined together in 1962 to form the Commission Française des Archives Juives (CFAJ). This organization’s purpose was to locate, classify, and make available the records of the French Jewish past for research, and news of the thefts served to highlight a fact they knew all too well: In many public archives, records relevant to the study of Jews in France were unavailable and at risk because they were unclassified. In some such places, they knew from their own experiences with him, Szajkowski had managed to talk his way into the back of the archives, where those unclassified materials were kept, having convinced archivists of his professionalism.
The founders of the CFAJ were particularly concerned that this might have happened in the 1950s in Jewish communal institutions and particularly in the Paris Consistory, a private religious institution that, since its founding by Napoleon in 1808, had held some of the most important records documenting Jewish communal life in France. They knew that the consistory’s materials had never been organized into an archive or transferred to the state archives and that it would have been entirely possible for someone like Szajkowski to talk his way into its collections and take from them what he wanted. Indeed, much of the material now held in American Jewish research libraries likely originated in the Paris Consistory and was almost certainly purchased from Szajkowski in the late 1950s and 1960s. However, because nothing was ever documented about these losses at the consistory itself, we cannot be certain how exactly these materials came into Szajkowski’s possession.
The sense of vulnerability was particularly acute in the library of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), the largest Jewish library in France, where librarians suspected Szajkowski of stealing documents and reference works from their collection beginning in the late 1940s.
The historian was well known to the staff there because he had occasionally conducted research in the library since the mid-1930s. Not long after the liberation, librarian Paul Klein (Moche Catane) noticed the disappearance of a dossier on the Damascus Affair (an 1840 ritual murder case involving both French and Ottoman authorities) and an important reference work (Henri Gross’ 1897 Gallia Judaica) and had tentatively pointed the finger at Szajkowski. Further evidence that Szajkowski had stolen materials from the AIU library was supplied in 1950 by Saadia Cherniak, the head of the American Friends of the AIU in New York. Cherniak learned that Szajkowski had sold several books to the New York Public Library (NYPL) and that the Jewish Division’s librarian, Joshua Bloch, believed these items had come from the AIU library. In addition, Szajkowski had sold other books and pamphlets to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) library. Finally, the American Jewish Historical Society had informed Cherniak that Szajkowski had submitted an article about the early history of the AIU for publication in their Proceedings; when asked by the editors what sources he had used for the article, Szajkowski had shown them “a whole series of documents” that they believed must have come from the AIU’s own collection.
Deeply concerned, the AIU’s President René Cassin, and its Executive Secretary Eugène Weill, were moved to action. They quickly decided that the situation was best handled without involving the authorities. The AIU’s librarian, Edmond-Maurice Lévy, agreed that a scandal should be avoided at all costs; he himself had years of experience working at the Bibiliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, where a librarian had been caught stealing valuable materials in the 1920s, and he drew on that memory in advising Cassin and Weill. In his estimation, formal legal proceedings were of little use to libraries in such cases, and it was better to work directly with the acquiring libraries, assuming that they had purchased these materials in good faith. They proceeded accordingly, with mixed results. With only limited cooperation from the New York libraries, they were able to retrieve some of the lost books from JTS. Perhaps just as important, from their leaders’ perspective, news of the thefts was contained: Protecting the institution’s reputation at home and abroad was an essential task in the difficult early years of postwar reconstruction, perhaps just as important as protecting its collections from theft.
Photographer Łukasz Baksik hunts repurposed matzevot, burial markers turned cornerstones and cobbles