The Book Thief
Did Zosa Szajkowski save precious documents from the Nazis, or did he steal the cultural patrimony of French Jews?
This essay is adapted from “Rescue or Theft? Zosa Szajkowski and the Salvaging of French Jewish History after World War II,” originally published in the journal Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society by Indiana University Press.
In 1968, Victor Berch, the Special Collections librarian at Brandeis University, was approached by the historian Zosa Szajkowski, who had a stack of archival documents for sale. The documents, Szajkowski said, were rare materials that documented the history of Jews in France. When asked where they came from, Szajkowski said that he had salvaged them during World War II, when as an American soldier he had “liberated them from boxcars” and then smuggled them to America for safety. Berch purchased the material, now called the Consistoire Central Israélite de France Collection. Its several thousand documents cover almost 200 years of French Jewish history.
Brandeis was not the only American Jewish research library to buy rare French Judaica in the 1950s and 60s. Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research also have substantial collections. Since they were first acquired, these records have been used as sources by dozens of scholars interested in French Jewish history. In the 1960s and 1970s, these salvaged documents of the French Jewish past became the basis for the first academic works of modern French Jewish history by authors like Arthur Hertzberg, Phyllis Cohen Albert, Frances Malino, and Paula Hyman. To the degree that it is possible to trace the provenance of the tens of thousands of such documents now held in American research libraries, most of them appear indeed to have been purchased from Szajkowski in the 1950s and 1960s.
Thirty-five years after his death, Szajkowski remains a controversial figure. A pioneer in modern French Jewish history, he wrote scores of articles in the field, most on topics no one had researched before and many of which are still regularly cited by scholars. Yet he never earned a doctorate or held an academic post, and many dismiss him as a mere amateur.
Even more controversy surrounds his passion for French Judaica. Over a period of decades, Szajkowski acquired tens of thousands of books and documents of historical interest about Jews from various sources in France. Why did he collect them, and why did he later sell them? The rumors about Szajkowski that circulate in the archives today tend to cast his story in black-and-white terms as either a heroic tale of rescue or a sordid tale of theft. In wartime, his transfers were read as a rescue effort, justified by those in his own world as a valiant response to the catastrophe of the war and the Holocaust. By 1961, when he was caught stealing documents from the Strasbourg Municipal Archives, his actions were condemned as theft, a crime against the city of Strasbourg, and an affront to the norms of historical and archival practice.
Szajkowski’s activities were remarkably broad in scope, but they were not unique. Indeed, they constituted but one part of a much larger moving of Jewish cultural property out of Europe during World War II and especially in its aftermath. Although numerous studies documenting that activity have been written, for the most part the phenomenon has been celebrated as a successful rescue effort in ways that obscure the contestations, illegalities, and ambiguities involved. But how long did those extraordinary times last? Anecdotal evidence suggests that for some Europeans, they never ended; these people were never able to reintegrate into society and continued to live in hiding for the rest of their lives. Studies focused specifically on Jewish Holocaust survivors have similarly argued that for some minority, it was difficult to abandon the alternative moral framework they had developed in those years. (This may well have been the case for Szajkowski, though it is impossible to know.) But by 1961, because the archives themselves (both French and American) had returned to business as usual, Szajkowski’s actions in the Strasbourg Municipal Archives could not be considered anything but theft.
Even so, when we examine the images of Szajkowski in this later moment, we can see larger truths about the archives that are usually hidden. Even after things had returned to normal, significant problems still plagued the French institutions holding the Judaica collections that Szajkowski took. These problems had their origins in Nazi pillaging, incomplete restitution processes, scant postwar resources, and the simple difficulties of putting the archives back together after the war. In that context, archivists and historians reacted to Szajkowski’s thefts by immortalizing them in legend. These stories about Szajkowski as a thief spoke to a larger reality of disorder and victimization that long outlasted the German occupation.
In the United States, Szajkowski’s actions were seen in light of a very different but equally pervasive mythology. By the end of World War II, Judaica librarians in America had come to think of their libraries as saviors and preservers of a European Jewish patrimony that had barely escaped total destruction. Seeing their own work within the framework of rescue led them to perceive Szajkowski as a rescuer as well.
On September 26, 1978, Zosa Szajkowski was found dead, having drowned in the bathtub of his room in the Taft Hotel in New York City. By then, his thefts from libraries seemed clearly pathological in nature, chronic, and increasingly risky. The week before, he had been caught on film stealing rare pamphlets from the Judaica room at the New York Public Library in an organized police sting operation. Facing not only criminal prosecution but also the certain end of his career as a historian and an archivist, Szajkowski took his own life.
In the wake of the suicide, rumors circulated, painting Szajkowski as a career archive thief. These rumors are based in fact: Since the war, Szajkowski had indeed been taking documents of historical value from Europe to the United States. But the illegal transfer of European Judaica had been read during and just after the war as a mission to rescue Jewish cultural heritage. Repeating similar actions through the 1950s and again as late as 1978 made Szajkowski into what many saw as an irredeemable thief. And yet those later actions had their roots in Szajkowski’s earlier experience in the war, at a time when taking Judaica out of Europe illegally seemed more than justified, since these materials would be needed to rebuild Jewish life after the catastrophe. What Szajkowski’s actions meant changed as the context changed.
Zosa Szajkowski’s transfer of Jewish cultural material from Europe to America began during World War II. At the time, his collecting was well known in the world of Yiddish-speaking scholars of Jewish culture, society, and history who made their way from Eastern Europe to Western Europe and eventually to New York in the difficult period between the two world wars. He was by no means alone in his pursuit of endangered Judaica. Indeed, by mid century, collecting documentation had become an important part of the Jewish response to tragedy, particularly among Eastern European Jews, as Samuel Kassow’s recent book on Emmanuel Ringelblum has shown. But though Szajkowski’s activity was welcomed by many in his circle who understood it to be part of the Jewish resistance to persecution, it did not go uncontested. Rather, it represented a particular perspective on where the Jewish future lay, and he marshaled the support of American authorities to help build that future. Others, with a different view of the viability of European Jewry—even those who shared the commitment to preserving the material remnants of its past—would see these transfers in quite a different light.
Szajkowski was devoted to a form of Jewish historical scholarship that made preserving as well as presenting documentation central. He embraced that world of Jewish scholarship shortly after he broke with the Jewish section of the Communist Party in France in the late 1930s, and he brought to it the same faith usually reserved for religion or political ideology. He had come to reject all of the politics of the interwar Jewish world—socialism, Zionism, assimilationism—seeing each as a rejection of Jewishness in one way or another. Instead of politics, these scholars believed in a new kind of Jewish cultural nationalism that embraced scholarship as a way to preserve Jewish life at a time of crisis. Collecting was an essential part of their mission as well. Working in the spirit of the historian Simon Dubnow, these scholars saw collecting remnants of the Jewish past as a way to preserve the past and renew Jewish culture through studying it.
Szajkowski encountered these Yiddish-speaking intellectuals in Paris rather than Eastern Europe, where they had all been born. He himself was born Yehoshua Frydman to a poor Jewish family in the Polish town of Zareby-Koscielne (Zaromb in Yiddish) in 1911 and had joined older siblings when he came to Paris in 1927. By his own account, he had little in the way of formal education—he had attended a Yidishe folkshul, or Yiddish-language secular primary school, in his hometown as a boy and then moved to Warsaw for a time, where he lived and studied at the Rabbinic Teacher’s Seminary. Yet he was drawn to writing, and by 1934 was a regular contributor to the Naye prese, the Yiddish language communist daily in Paris. His articles appeared under his real name, Szajko Frydman (Szajko had been his nickname since childhood and was the name he used on all official documents throughout his life), and at least three pseudonyms (Z. Szajkowski; Sh. Feld; and Tchapchinski), as was then the custom in the Yiddish press.
In 1937 or 1938, Szajkowski broke with the Communists and moved away from journalism altogether. By that time, he had become interested in writing works of scientific history based on documents. He learned these methods from Elias Tcherikower, a Russian-born Jew then living in Paris who, assisted by his wife Riva, was the head of the Historical Section of the Vilna-based Yiddish Scientific Institute, or YIVO. Founded in 1925, YIVO was dedicated to preserving as well as studying Jewish culture in all of its complexity. To this end, the founders created both a scholarly center for advancing Yiddish scholarship in Vilna and established a network of zamlers (collectors), volunteers who collected all sorts of Jewish artifacts. The zamler program had a twofold agenda rooted in Yiddish cultural nationalism: to preserve the Jewish past for memory and study, and to interest the Jewish people in their own past. The Tcherikowers were interested in both aspects. They themselves had amassed a large archive of materials collected across Europe that they kept in the Paris apartment they had moved to when they emigrated from Berlin in 1933, and they also collaborated with other scholars in producing works of historical scholarship in Yiddish.
Based on the correspondence they left behind, it appears that Szajkowski met the Tcherikowers around 1935. By the late 1930s he was working in the orbit of the Paris section of YIVO and seriously pursuing his historical studies, contributing five out of the 19 articles that constituted Tcherikower’s Yidn in Frankraykh collection, more than any other single author. When the war broke out, most of the members of the Historical Section of YIVO fled Paris. In the fall of 1940, the Tcherikowers themselves left France for New York, where YIVO was being reconstituted. Unable to take their entire archive with them, they entrusted part of it to Szajkowski, who had joined the French Foreign Legion and had been wounded gravely in battle in June 1940. In September, just before leaving for Lisbon, they met with Szajkowski, who was convalescing in Carpentras in southern France. He promised to take care of the papers they could not take with them and to continue the work of YIVO in France.
Szajkowski cared deeply about safeguarding the materials in his possession. His correspondence with the Tcherikowers in 1940–41 speaks to their growing closeness and to a shared, near-obsessive concern for the safety of these archives, and it chronicles their many attempts to get the materials to New York. Already before the war, and certainly after the fall of France, they had embraced a conception of Jewish civilization that did not recognize national borders. Taking materials relevant to Jewish history from one country to another was as natural as the flow of Jews themselves from one country to another as they sought safe haven. The history of the Jews would be written as that of a single civilization, by Jews wherever they lived. Thus, it was the Jews, not the states that governed them, who had the legitimate claim on the archives these scholars were assembling.
This perspective on Jewish history comes through in the research and the collecting work Szajkowski did when he was in Carpentras from September 1940 to May 1941, waiting to obtain a visa to enter the United States. His research in local libraries bore fruit in the form of a study of the all-but-extinct Jewish dialect in the Comtat Venaissin region where he found himself. He examined Judeo-Provençal as a Jewish language to be considered in comparison to Jewish languages that developed elsewhere, such as Yiddish or Judeo-Spanish. He was also an unofficial zamler for YIVO, working on his own to collect remnants of the Jewish past in the area to be archived for safekeeping and study. To do this, he befriended Jews in the area, and before long he acquired items of historical interest from them, including such rare materials as Hebrew grammars from the 16th to 18th centuries, prints from the end of the 15th century, and an 18th-century pinkas (communal record book). He also acquired objects such as a scroll of the biblical book of Esther, a Torah crown, and a synagogue circumcision chair, sending them along to YIVO in New York.
Given what we know of his later collecting, one cannot help but wonder if Szajkowski stole the materials he gathered in Carpentras. The only record we have is his correspondence with the Tcherikowers, a problematic source for this question since they provide little information about the transactions and focus rather on the utility of the materials for historians. Szajkowski did say that the numerous items from the local synagogue that he donated to YIVO had come to him through a Mlle. Mossé, the unmarried adult daughter of the recently deceased synagogue beadle. These items appear to have been gifts, but we cannot know why Mlle. Mossé would have decided to give them away. Perhaps she, like many Jews elsewhere in Europe, saw the Jewish population around her dwindling and believed in the project of the zamlers, which Szajkowski surely described to her. Or perhaps she saw the coming storm, with the northern half of France already occupied by the Nazis and the fate of Jews in Carpentras uncertain, since the town had come under the control of the collaborationist Vichy regime. In any event, Szajkowski does not appear to have paid her for the materials. The only item he seems to have purchased was the 18th-century Carpentras pinkas, which, he reported in a letter to the Tcherikowers, had been held in the house of an old man who would not part with it unless he was paid.
Whatever else, Szajkowski—Steeped as he was in the culture of YIVO—clearly saw collecting as a way to take valuable Judaica to a place where people would study it. In 1940-41, he had no concept of a particularly French Jewish patrimony separate from the rest of Jewish history; he saw Judaica as the material remnant of a collective Jewish past that could be gathered up and taken anywhere that Jews lived. And if the best place for such materials was a place where people understood the meaning and value of these remnants, Carpentras at that moment was certainly not such a place. As he described it, Jewish life was dying out in Carpentras; even those Jews who had items of historical interest in their possession were doing nothing with them, and their children were leaving the region.
Szajkowski had another reason to send Judaica as well. By sending frequent updates on his research and his collecting, along with material gifts, to the YIVO directors in New York, Szajkowski filled his days with a sense of purpose and kept his loneliness at bay, connecting himself to the people he most admired and who, not incidentally, were best positioned to get him a visa to get out of France, where as an immigrant without French citizenship, he was far from secure, watching with envy as others around him left the country. As he wrote in a letter in 1941:
I would be able to collect so many things, but there’s no strength. There would perhaps be energy, but there’s no money, and no one wants to help. Wherever I turn, I get the same answer. “Look what a crazy guy is thinking about these days? Archives! As if archives could ever accomplish anything.” All people do is wait for visas, and in the meantime, they prepare banquets (Yes!) for those who are leaving, and they buy everything they can. They can go to hell.
Feeling isolated, inadequate, and increasingly nervous about his situation, Szajkowski compensated for his powerlessness by expressing contempt for those around him. This would eventually become a recognizable character trait, but at this moment in Carpentras, it was also his way of proving to the Tcherikowers that he, above all others, was worth saving, because he was the only one left who cared about archives. His special pleading worked; from the moment of their arrival in New York, the Tcherikowers worked tirelessly, pulling every string possible to get him one of the few coveted visas being issued in Marseilles in 1941. The goal of saving himself was in no particular tension with the goal of collecting documents; on the contrary, psychologically, they were interrelated.
In spring 1941, Szajkowski, with the help of the Tcherikowers and the Emergency Rescue Committee, finally managed to get a visa to come to the United States. After a difficult journey, including a brief incarceration in Oued Zem, a Vichy concentration camp in Morocco, Szajkowski arrived in New York on board the infamous banana freighter Navemar in September 1941.
But it was not long before he returned to Europe, bringing with him the same dedication to collecting Judaica that he demonstrated in 1940. Indeed, his will to collect appears to have been strengthened as the war continued and the threat it posed to Jewish life and culture became more apparent. In January 1943, Szajkowski joined the United States Army and was eventually assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper and interpreter. During his leave time in France in 1944–45, he sought out and recovered the parts of the YIVO archive he had been forced to leave behind and sent YIVO many packages of French Yiddish periodicals produced underground during the war. In April 1945, he sent YIVO some records of the Union Générale des Israélites de France (UGIF), the official body that regulated French Jewish life during the war. Although he does not mention the name of the person who entrusted the collection to him (saying only that “he trusts me completely”) or how or where the collection had survived, the letter does much to explain why Szajkowski thought it worthwhile to remove these materials from France. He wrote that he did not believe that France was “a secure spot for Jewish archives.” Moreover, he thought the UGIF papers were particularly important to preserve for posterity; these, he believed, would testify to the “unscrupulous doings” of its leaders, implying that he suspected they collaborated in various ways with the authorities.
These letters point to an evolution in Szajkowski’s collecting during the war. In 1941, Szajkowski saw himself as protecting Jewish cultural heritage from the disregard of the Jews of Carpentras by bringing the items along to America, where fate had now sent the Eastern European Jewish scholars who would study them and integrate them into Jewish histories. Although he does not seem to have considered that some might have seen this as stealing French Jews’ patrimony, we have no evidence at all that anyone in Carpentras objected to Szajkowski’s collecting in that early time. When he took the UGIF papers in 1945, though, Szajkowski stepped into more contested ground. His friend Marc Jarblum (1887–1972), the Zionist leader of the French Jewish immigrant association, the Fédération des Sociétés Juives de France, wanted the papers to stay in France, where they could be used in the process of communal reconstruction. Szajkowski respected Jarblum but had little faith in the broader French Jewish community. Promising his friend that he would send him copies later, he decided to ignore Jarblum’s wishes and sent the originals to YIVO.
Indeed, in his letters from 1944 to 1945, Szajkowski’s disenchantment with the French Jewish immigrant community he had left in 1941 is quite clear. In spite of all their suffering, he believed that the never-ending squabbling among communists, socialists, and Zionists that still consumed the immigrant Jewish world—what he scornfully called “politics”—would make it impossible to truly reconstruct Jewish life in France. Many of the immigrants from Eastern Europe were forgetting their Yiddish, a process hastened by the extreme conditions of the war. Moreover, their commitments to political movements, particularly on the left, had drawn them away from thinking about what was best for the Jews. As he wrote of his friends he found gathering at the Medem Club, the association of Jewish socialists (Bundists) in Paris:
They’re still talking a lot of politics and in actuality doing nothing to put damaged Jewish life in Paris back together—politics and more politics! A group of Jewish children still sit at the rue Vieille-du-Temple and talk about world problems, about everything in the world except Jewish problems.
Szajkowski also frequently expressed anti-French sentiments in his letters. This country he loved so much had proved to be almost as anti-Semitic as the rest of Europe. Such feelings likely also contributed to his decision to take these important records to America. It was not that he believed that there were no Jews left in France; it was rather that he did not trust them—much less the French authorities—to be good or even adequate stewards of Jewish history.
The belief that Europe was no longer a safe place for Jewish archives also informed Szajkowski’s collecting in the summer and fall of 1945, after the fall of the Third Reich, when he was reassigned to Allied-occupied Germany. Whereas in France he focused on material produced by Jews, primarily contemporary periodicals, in Germany he developed a passion for anti-Semitic books. A 1946 order from the Allied command would make such books illegal and subject to confiscation or destruction by the authorities, although evidence suggests that even then, the authorities did little to enforce the order. At this earlier moment, however, no policy was yet in place, and Szajkowski found materials of interest everywhere—in bookstores, abandoned buildings, and in the hands of individuals eager to trade for watches, chocolate, or cigarettes— and sent what he acquired on in vast quantities. In the extreme conditions of summer and fall 1945, this was easy to do, and such actions would not have stood out in the American military culture of World War II, when the collection of mementos, small and large, was a typical practice among soldiers.
Unlike many of his fellow soldiers, though, Szajkowski was not interested in the resale value of the items; these were for scholarly use. This is clear from how he treated some of the books he found. In order to fit them into reasonably sized packages, he eventually decided to rip chapters of interest from their bindings to send them on to YIVO. “Am I barbaric to do that?” he wrote to Riva Tcherikower.
Probably, but it’s the only way. I simply can’t send those books intact. They’d be lost in any case. So I’m doing my barbaric work with a clean conscience. Aside from that, is it barbaric to rip apart Nazi books? … Yesterday as I sat and tore pages out of a Nazi book … a German girl started crying. Her beastly Nazi soul couldn’t bear seeing a Jew calmly tearing pages out of a German book. I told her to keep working and stop her games.
Unlike many collectors who prized their materials for their value as objects, Szajkowski was interested only in their content. Nor did he value them as booty for future sale on the American market, since one could not sell a book in this condition. He was more than aware that this attitude made him different from other book lovers and could even be seen as barbaric. But he saw his actions as necessary if he were to serve the Jewish people through scholarship at this important moment of reconstruction. And alongside this justification was an unmistakable tone of triumphalism, shot through with irony, about how his treatment of these German books was being seen. He was the Jewish barbarian of the anti-Semitic German woman’s nightmares and simultaneously the American conqueror. Relishing his power as an American GI and conscious of his Jewishness, Szajkowski understood that ripping books apart and sending them on to YIVO was in effect putting the Germans in their place, destroying and re-contextualizing the things they so loved before their very eyes, just as they had done with Jewish objects.
What were Szajkowski’s motivations during the wartime period? Mostly they appear to have been ideological, in line with the Jewish resistance to fascism as conceived by people in his milieu. Like his friends at YIVO, Szajkowski was concerned with protecting the remnants of the Jewish past against all of the forces of destruction. Early in the war, in Vichy France, this concern had him focus on the neglect of assimilated French Jews. Later, when he returned in 1944 with the Americans, he focused also on repairing the damage wrought by the Nazis when they looted Jewish libraries across Europe in order to use these records to rewrite Jewish history as a story of the Jewish threat to European culture. Thinking of his work along these lines is what motivated Szajkowski to write so proudly about it in a 1944 article published for an American Jewish scholarly audience in the original series of Jewish Social Studies. Rather than writing that he had “received” or “bought” the materials he was using for the article in Carpentras in 1941 (either of which might have been accurate), he instead used the term “salvaged.” At the time, this term made as much sense to American Jewish scholars as it did to the Eastern European refugee scholars who had recently arrived in the country. It implied that he had saved these remnants of the Jewish past from those who treated them like garbage, even though none of what he took from Carpentras was in fact threatened in any immediate sense by the Nazis.
If Szajkowski was in conflict with at least one of the French Jewish leaders over the removal of archival material from France at the end of the war, he encountered less resistance from the American occupation authorities in Germany. This is an important context for understanding why Szajkowski’s work in this early period was read by Jewish scholars based in the United States as a work of rescue. In the fall of 1945 in Berlin, where Szajkowski was stationed, many other GIs were salvaging Nazi documents for all sorts of reasons—some in an official capacity for the upcoming war-crimes trials, others looking for mementos to keep or to sell. Although Allied command authorities forbade the removal of cultural treasures, particularly archives, from Germany, the military authorities were well aware of what Szajkowski was doing and, as happened with so many other prohibited items, they allowed him to send the material to YIVO through their mail system. In this regard, the positive publicity he was getting in the Jewish community in New York helped him convince the base censor in Germany to let him send more German books. He wrote to Riva Tcherikower, “The notice in the YIVO Bleter about my sending things did come in handy. I gave it to an officer who then had the packages pass through censorship with no trouble at all.”
American policy was clarified later, after Szajkowski had returned home. By 1946, leaders in the American occupation were treating looted Judaica as a special case and had decided that except for some of the Western European Jewish materials (such as the French materials, which were returned to France), most of the looted Judaica they found would not be returned to its country of origin. Instead, the Americans turned to a private American organization called Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) to handle the distribution of looted Judaica found in Germany for which no prewar owners could be identified or found. Guided by the same mentality that motivated Szajkowski, the directors of this organization, historian Salo Baron and philosopher Hannah Arendt, decided to move this “heirless” property out of Europe and into a variety of library collections in the United States and Israel. For Arendt especially, Judaica no longer belonged in Europe, where Jewish history had come to an end; now, the remnants of the Jewish past needed to be in the places where Jews lived and Jewish historians could make use of them.
At stake here was a question of an existential sort: In the wake of the recent war, where should Jewish things go? As Jews based in the United States began to get news of the catastrophe that had destroyed the vast majority of European Jews, this question took on a particular urgency. As historian Lucy Dawidowicz later wrote of her own work to recover looted books in American-occupied Germany:
The possibility that I might play a role, however minor, in the return of the YIVO library reawakened my old rescue fantasies. I no longer dreamed of rescuing Rivele and Kalman from the flames of war, but now I had become obsessed with saving as many remnants as I could of the Vilna YIVO’s books and manuscripts. I wanted to have my share in restoring them to their transplanted home in New York.
Dawidowicz may have been unusually articulate, writing here retrospectively, but her ideas were clearly shared by other Jews, including her friend Szajkowski, who came into contact with displaced Jewish things in Europe at the end of the war. Especially for cultural nationalists, Jewish things were a metonym for the lost Jewish people. The question of where they should go was therefore conceived by cultural activists in this milieu as a question about the Jewish future. Jewish cultural property was now the property of the Jewish people, a people understood by these same activists to be at the start of an exodus from Europe of historic proportions.
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.
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.
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.
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