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?
And once these materials became available at JTS and HUC, scholars actually had far more access to them than when they were in France, at least in the 1960s. Most of the sources Szajkowski collected—both those cited as “in the author’s collection” and many of those that he cited at JTS or HUC in the 1950s—were documents created by regional consistories or synagogue administrations. Still others, such as those cited in Autonomy, originated in state archives in Alsace, Lorraine, the Bordeaux-Bayonne region, and the Avignon region, which were the most significant areas of Jewish settlement in modern France. In the 1950s and early 1960s, before the CFAJ began its work, it would have been quite difficult, if not impossible, for most people to see many of those records in their original sites.
What can we conclude from this story, which is by turns heroic and sordid and exists throughout, of course, in the shadow of the tragedy of European Jewry? French archivists today conclude that they have been robbed of a portion of their patrimony. In the years since the discovery of Szajkowski’s thefts in Strasbourg in 1961, they have taken steps to protect materials about French Jews in public and private collections, and through the efforts of the CFAJ, these materials have been catalogued and made available to researchers. Many American archivists and quite a few American historians conclude, in contrast, that Szajkowski was a hero who made it possible to find real answers to the difficult questions about the path of Jewish assimilation and the continued presence of anti-Semitism in modern France. Looking into the matter more closely, we have seen that Szajkowski was both. Some of what he did was certainly rescue; he was also a convicted thief. His thefts brought materials out into the open that were otherwise difficult to access; his rescue took important materials away from their places of origin, where we are most likely to go looking for them.
This history of the backstage of French Jewish archives not only nuances our view of what Szajkowski did, it also sheds new light on the larger context in which his actions took place. On the one hand, the Jewish resistance to fascism, and particularly the Eastern European conception of resistance, played a key role in shaping Szajkowski’s actions. But the postwar context was equally important. The balance of power in the Jewish world was shifting away from Europe and to the United States, and this shift entailed the continued transfer of Jewish cultural property out of Europe to new centers of Jewish economic, cultural, and political clout.
Szajkowski’s story also forces us to reconsider our conception of archives in ways that are relevant beyond French Jewish history. Following Foucault and Derrida, scholars generally portray archives as monuments to state power that collect, select, and make available the documents necessary for constructing a national past. And yet, when we examine how so much French Judaica made its way out of France and into American Jewish institutions, we see that archives in fact have an even more complicated relationship to state power. As a diasporic people lacking a unified, authoritative voice at a moment of great upheaval, Jews worked both within and against the powers that decided the fate of their cultural treasures. This did not result in the centralization of the Jewish cultural heritage, as many activists would have liked. Instead, it brought about a new scattering of that patrimony, one that maps onto the new centers of Jewish power in the postwar diaspora.
The ambiguity that sits at the heart of the story of Zosa Szajkowski also points us to an aspect of the very nature of archives. On the one hand, the creators of archives rescue the past for us. They gather together and preserve records from the past, making it possible for historians to study them. On the other hand, there is also violence in the project of archiving. The very process of making an archive re-contextualizes documents and—in subtle or not-so-subtle ways—changes their meaning. Rather than the work of the powerful, some archives, at least, are actually the work of the powerless. If our understanding of archives in general is broadened to include all those who shaped their histories, these institutions look less and less like a coherent monument and more and more like a salvage heap.
Photographer Łukasz Baksik hunts repurposed matzevot, burial markers turned cornerstones and cobbles