Born into poverty in Russian Poland in 1911, Zosa Szajkowski
(Shy-KOV-ski) was a self-made man who managed to make a life for
himself as an intellectual, first as a journalist in 1930s Paris,
and then, after a harrowing escape to New York in 1941, as a
scholar. Although he never taught at a university or even earned a
PhD, Szajkowski became one of the world's foremost experts on the
history of the Jews in modern France, publishing in Yiddish,
English, and Hebrew. His work opened up new ways of thinking about
Jewish emancipation, economic and social modernization, and the
rise of modern anti-Semitism. But beneath Szajkowski's scholarly
success lay a shameful secret. In the aftermath of the Holocaust,
the scholar stole tens of thousands of archival documents related
to French Jewish history from public archives and private synagogue
collections in France and moved them, illicitly, to New York.
There, he used them as the basis for his pathbreaking articles.
Eventually, he sold them, piecemeal, to American and Israeli
research libraries, where they still remain today. Why did this
respectable historian become an archive thief? And why did
librarians in the United States and Israel buy these materials from
him, turning a blind eye to the signs of ownership they bore? These
are the questions that motivate this gripping tale. Throughout, it
is clear that all involved-perpetrator, victims, and buyers-saw
what Szajkowski was doing through the prism of the Holocaust. The
buyers shared a desire to save these precious remnants of the
European Jewish past, left behind on a continent where six million
Jews had just been killed by the Nazis and their collaborators. The
scholars who read Szajkowski's studies, based largely on the
documents he had stolen, saw the treasures as offering an
unparalleled window into the history that led to that catastrophe.
And the Jewish caretakers of many of the institutions Szajkowski
robbed in France saw the losses as a sign of their difficulties
reconstructing their community after the Holocaust, when the
balance of power in the Jewish world was shifting away from Europe
to new centers in America and Israel. Based on painstaking
research, Lisa Leff reconstructs Szajkowski's story in all its
ambiguity by taking us backstage at the archives, revealing the
powerful ideological, economic and scientific forces that made
Holocaust-era Jewish scholars care more deeply than ever before
about preserving the remnants of their past.
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