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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?

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The AIU’s cautious handling of Szajkowski’s thefts may have protected them from scandal, but it may not have protected them from further losses. Indeed, although JTS returned some of the stolen books it had purchased from Szajkowski in 1950, there is evidence that its librarians acquired additional materials from the scholar. By 1956, Szajkowski was selling large quantities of material to both JTS in New York and Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati. Whereas JTS had begun its acquisitions from the historian in the late 1940s, HUC’s purchases began later, in the mid-1950s. HUC’s Klau Library has a large collection of materials from the French Jewish consistories, as well as two collections of material specifically from Alsace-Lorraine, another of material on the Sephardi Jews of southwestern France, and yet another called the French Miscellanea Collection. Librarian Herbert Zafren stated in his annual report covering the period from April 1955 to April 1956 that he acquired a very large collection of French Judaica from a single, unnamed source. We can deduce that the source was Szajkowski, as some of the materials in question bear his name stamp in Yiddish and others carry markings in red or blue pencil in his handwriting.

It was in the same period that the library at JTS began to acquire its French Jewish collections, particularly its French Jewish Communities Record Group (1648–1946), which comprises 11.2 cubic feet of material. Here, as at HUC, we cannot be absolutely certain which items in these collections were purchased from Szajkowski, because no actual acquisitions records from the period remain in either library. Nevertheless, Judaica librarian Roger Kohn, who catalogued the JTS collection in the 1980s, ascertained from the records he consulted, which are apparently no longer extant, that the collection there was purchased entirely from Szajkowski, and he stated as much in the inventory he created. What remains of the correspondence of librarians Nahum Sarna and Menahem Schmelzer from the late 1950s and early 1960s suggests that Kohn’s contention is correct. Without specifying exactly what or even how much material they were buying, the letters nonetheless do show that these librarians purchased French Judaica in several different batches from Szajkowski. These purchases were conducted through his friend Arthur Hertzberg, an alumnus of JTS and a French Jewish historian himself.

Markings like those found on the HUC documents can be seen on the JTS documents, too. They are also on some of the materials in the Brandeis University collection, acquired only in 1970. As on the documents at HUC, these marks include scribbled notes, calculations, and numbers in Szajkowski’s handwriting, and some bear stamps with the name Z. Shaykovsky in Yiddish. Other materials in all these collections are cut in various ways, particularly on the first page of multipage documents, as if ownership stamps had been removed with scissors.

For the librarians who purchased these materials, the mythology of wartime rescue and their sense of their own role within it functioned to support their decision to acquire these materials. Zafren at HUC and Sarna and Schmelzer at JTS saw their respective missions as building world-class institutions with unparalleled collections of historical documents useful to scholars in Jewish history. These offerings from Szajkowski thus represented a rare opportunity to acquire useful materials. Schmelzer, who had worked as Sarna’s assistant in his first few years on the job, never asked Szajkowski directly where the materials came from but that he had heard that the historian had brought “truckloads” of materials back from Europe after the war. Like Sarna before him, Schmelzer understood these materials to be part of the larger orphaned European Jewish heritage for which JTS, as a major Jewish research institution with solid resources, saw itself as bearing a special responsibility.

A similar sense of mission informed the purchases at the Brandeis library. Victor Berch was new to the job, without any professional training in library science, when he purchased materials from Szajkowski in 1968 on the recommendation of Sarna, who had recently become chair of the university’s Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Berch took Sarna’s recommendation seriously and, in addition, was moved when Szajkowski told him that the materials had been “liberated from boxcars” he had found when he was in the United States Army during World War II. Berch had heard similar stories in the past and like Schmelzer was happy to get such rare materials for the library of his institution, a new university with world-class ambitions.

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This is a marvelous book, bought it three years ago, introduced it to members of my writing group, who all found it witty, informative and of course beautifully written.

I am happy that Szajkowski stole those archives. So happy. With the recent discovery of 42 500 WW2 forced labor camps, ghettoes and concentration camps in Europe, it is inconceivable that no-one knew what was going on with Jews in Europe. THEY HAD TO HAVE KNOWN. I WAS EVERYWHERE.
Europe quite simply DOES NOT DESERVE to have these artifacts remaining in Europe. Jews, especially French Jews,Norwegian, Danish, Swedish Jews are fleeing Europe once again because of Islamic radicalism. At least in America they are safe for the future. They would probably be safe in Israel too where most Jews of the world now live-in an underground vault. So I salute Szajkowski for being a book thief. The EU is once again in the hands of radical fascists-left wing fascists who abuse and do not protect Jews from antisemitism and attacks by leftwing and Islamic radicals, trying make Europe Judenrein once again.

herbcaen says:

As Europe evolves into Eurabia, the documents are safe in the US and Israel. Everything else in Europe will meet the fate of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, as Europes museums are put to the torch by the latest invasion of the vandals

With modern methods, by scanning and emailing manuscripts can easily be “located” in more than one library or archive at the same time, and be available to researchers at both or in fact anywhere. This provides a solution to any remaining problems of disputed ownership of documents caused by the subject here. Actually, the European archives would be better off with electronic copies of missing documents, since they would have them without needing space to store them, the cost of computerizing them, or any danger of them being stolen again, in a form most convenient for those wanting to see them.

rivkah fishman says:

Thank you. I remember Zosa Szajkowski very well. He was part of my youth and frequently a guest on Jewish holidays. He was a lonely man and a friend, colleague of my late father. He did not make money from selling those documents and was often in need. In the end, most of the documents are safe and available for scholars. R.I.P.

Stephan-www.twicemodern.wordpr says:

Thank you for an extremely well balanced review, a joy to read!
Much Jewish material was bought after WWII in the US and in Europe to alleviate the guilt of not helping 6 million Jews to escape their faith.Consequently protected and safeguarding memory and memorials became a well funded pathway to expropriate the remaining Jewry of their “holocaust”.The same German,French,Dutch etc institutions will gladly claim such ” cultural heritage” of their slain citizens of Jewish faith,justifying an Anti Israel attitude under the motto “look how we take care of your heritage here”. Nothing to see here folks ,just move on.Those institutions and many American Jews – in name- only in the US are no exception to the rule.Thank you again

margreet hirs says:

what a wonderful thief!

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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?