Three years ago, Tablet published an essay by Lisa Leff about Zosa Szajkowski, a Polish-French-American historian who, in the wake of World War II, amassed an enviable collection of rare French Judaica—a substantial portion of it attained under dubious circumstances.
Now, the Jewish Book Council has announced that Leff, herself a historian at American University, has won the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize, which recognizes outstanding contemporary writing of Jewish interest by emerging authors, for her book about Szajkowski, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust—first glimpsed in her 2013 Tablet essay.
Born in Białystok, Poland, Szajkowski emigrated to Paris in the 1920s, before leaving for America in the 1940s. He served as an American Army intelligence officer, fought in Normandy on D-Day, and went on to work as an archivist and researcher at YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research. He took his own life in 1978, however, after being caught stealing materials from the New York Public Library’s Judaica room, in an organized police sting operation. In her Tablet essay, Leff summarizes Szajkowski’s ambiguous legacy:
Some of what [Szajkowski] 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.
Besides Leff and her book, finalists for this year’s Sami Rohr Prize are:
• The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, by Aviya Kushner
• The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, by Adam D. Mendelsohn
• Choice Award winner Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, by Yehudah Mirsky
If you will be in New York City in May, you can attend a free panel discussion with the 2016 winner and finalists at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Wednesday, May 18th.
Rose Kaplan is an intern at Tablet.