By Lisa Moses Leff
Reviewed by Martin Green on May 18, 2015
This academic monograph opens up a field not familiar to most general readers, even those who use libraries frequently: the traffic in manuscripts and documents that provide the backbone for archives and special library collections, especially in Judaica. Leff’s focus is on an historian who wrote under the name of Zosa Szajkowski, who at the same time that he was authoring a prodigious number of articles and books on the history of French Jewry (and accomplishing the goal of Leff’s subtitle) was also systematically pillaging the very archives where he did his research and subsequently selling off his takings.
Szajkowski (pronounced Shy-KOV-ski) was born in Poland in 1911, moved to Paris in the late 1920s, and eventually escaped Hitler’s Europe to the United States in 1941. While living in pre-war Europe, Szajkowski (born Yehoshua “Shayke” Frydman) shifted from Communist-inspired journalism to Jewish scholarship under the tutelage of Ilya and Riva Tchernikower, leaders of YIVO’s French branch. Despite his lack of a formal advanced education, he wrote several groundbreaking studies of Jews in France in the pre-and post-Emancipation era. After his escape to the United States, Szajkowski returned to Europe as a G.I. and in the post-war period, while serving with the occupying forces in Germany, he began a systematic pillaging of documents and materials from Nazi archives, shipping them to YIVO in New York. His efforts were, as Leff notes, a drop in the bucket of the flood of documents flowing out of war-ravaged Europe, some of it flowing through legal and official channels operated by Allied commissions of restitution, some flowing illegally but with the connivance or indifference of the authorities. Szajkowski’s finds and his accomplishments earned him praise from YIVO, gave him greater standing in the scholarly community, and earned him a place in YIVO’s organization. In the late 1940s and through the 1950s, Szajkowski continued his research in French archives and published many more studies (Leff’s listing of his collected works takes up nine pages in her bibliography). His work, however, became increasingly marginalized in mainstream historical Judaic studies (he was more interested in assembling facts than in larger questions of synthesis), and suspicions grew about his pilfering documents and selling them to major collections in the U. S. and Israel. It was not until 1961, however, that he was caught red-handed by librarians in France, although not charged with theft, and another decade passed before he was finally arrested in New York. Several days after his arrest he was found dead in a hotel bathroom in midtown Manhattan.
Leff attempts to account for Szajkowski’s motivations and she puts him in the context of other post-war operations to salvage the memorabilia of European Jewry. He did what many were doing, although his motivation may have turned from the altruistic attempt to preserve an endangered tradition to mere self-preservation (he needed the materials for his research; he needed the money from their sale to live on). She sees Szajkowski as a tragic figure, but she also has critical things to say about the libraries and collections that bought his pilfered materials without raising too many uncomfortable questions about their provenance. For the scholarly audience, the book raises many theoretical issues of library management and the preservation of historical materials; for general readers it is a fascinating glimpse into a little-known aspect of recent Jewish history.