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From the JFR Library – October 2019

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From the JFR Library

The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust

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.

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