The Book Thief
Did Zosa Szajkowski save precious documents from the Nazis, or did he steal the cultural patrimony of French Jews?
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.
Photographer Łukasz Baksik hunts repurposed matzevot, burial markers turned cornerstones and cobbles