Solved: The Mystery of the Global Dispersion of Jewish Documents from France

tags: Holocaust

Lisa Moses Leff is an associate professor of history at American University and the author of The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust (Oxford Series on History and Archives).

Any scholar conducting research on the history of Jews in modern France knows that the archival records are not where you’d expect them to be. Take, for instance, the administrative records of the major French synagogues (“consistoires” in French), institutions that have been in continuous operation since they were established by Napoleonic decree in 1808. Many of these papers are still housed in the synagogues where they were created, but others can be found in collections in distant libraries in Cincinnati, New York, Boston, or Jerusalem. Still more puzzling is the global dispersion of many documents about Jews that were created by French state agencies since the eighteenth century. By law, such records should be held in French public archives; but here too, we find many such papers in those same collections in the United States and Israel. To what do we owe this veritable diaspora of documents?

If you ask the archivists who work with collections of modern French Judaica in France, the United States, or Israel, they’ll tell you an intriguing story. The transfers were mainly the work of one person: the historian Zosa Szajkowski (1911-78), a man rightly considered a pioneer in the field of French Jewish history. Although he never earned a PhD or held an academic post, he was highly accomplished, writing almost two hundred academic studies in five languages over the course of his career, most of them on topics that no one had ever researched before.

Beyond his scholarly work lay a shameful secret: Szajkowski was also an archive thief. Over the course of his years as a scholar, he stole what now appears to be tens of thousands of documents from archives across France. In 1961, he was caught red-handed stealing irreplaceable archival documents, hundreds of years old, from the municipal archives in Strasbourg, France and was later convicted in absentia for the crime and sentenced to a prison term and a heavy fine. Since the French did not extradite him, he never served his sentence, and many of his colleagues in New York never learned of it. Still, the conviction brought an end to Szajkowski’s thefts in France. He did, however, continue to pilfer collections closer to home. In 1978, he was caught again, this time at the New York Public Library. A few days later, he committed suicide in a hotel room of the Taft Hotel, just a short walk from the scene of his final crime.

Szajkowski’s thefts were connected to his lifelong passion for history. He had an unusual background for a scholar, having come from quite a humble background. He first felt the lure of the archives as a young Polish immigrant living in Paris in the 1930s. Among Yiddish-speaking intellectuals in interwar Europe, collecting old papers that documented the Jewish past was part of an increasingly important nationalist project. Migration and modernization were transforming Jewish life beyond recognition, and in 1925, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was founded to preserve Jewish culture through scholarship. Szajkowski was inspired by YIVO’s project, and devoted himself to gathering material for its archives.

When World War II came, Szajkowski escaped to New York and joined the U.S. Army. As a soldier, distraught with what he saw, he grew more passionate than ever about collecting for YIVO, hoping the papers would help Jewish intellectuals make sense of what was happening. He sought out rare documents about the persecution, sending everything he could to YIVO in New York. Even though much of his collecting was technically against Army regulations, he was treated as a hero in New York for rescuing these remnants from the wreckage of European Jewish life.

But then, after the war, the rescuer became a thief. What had started as a passion to collect became a compulsion to steal, as the financially strapped historian sought to make his way in America. His lack of credentials made it impossible for him to get an academic job, but he remained as dedicated to scholarship as ever. His buyers were eager for the rare documents he sold, seeking to help the struggling scholar and also to build their collections.

In the end, Szajkowski’s collecting — especially if we take what he collected legally together with his thefts — is as much part of his legacy to the field as his scholarship. After using his documents as evidence in his articles and books, the archive thief sold the materials directly to research libraries, bit by bit, over a period of decades. The sales were quite significant, both in scope and in impact. To the degree that it is possible to trace the origin of the French Jewish materials held in collections in the United States and Israel, most of them were purchased from Szajkowski in the 1950s and 60s. They have been used as source material by dozens of scholars, including most importantly, those who wrote the very first academic works of French Jewish history in the 1960s and 70s, such as Arthur Hertzberg, Frances Malino, Phyllis Cohen Albert, and Paula Hyman. Though all these scholars did extensive research in France for their work as well, the source material in American institutions shaped what they wrote about topics that no scholar working in the academy—American or French-- had yet explored.

Today, largely because of Szajkowski, the French Judaica that most scholars consult has thus been split between two types of institutions. In France, many papers are still held in the public archives that first collected them, and there, they are organized alongside the records of other French institutions, grouped by provenance. In America and Israel, by contrast, French Jewish records are organized according to an entirely different principle, and they are generally identified as “French” materials, alongside other collections like “German,” or “Italian” materials. In short, while the records in French national institutions are organized to reflect the organization of the French state, the records in the American and Israeli collections are organized to reflect the history of the Jews in diaspora; what we might call an “ingathering of the exiled documents.” As historians, our access to the documentation of the French Jewish past is thus constructed through institutions with very different conceptions of the place of Jews in modern France. One makes Jews an integral, if sometimes invisible, part of French history, and another makes France one location among many in the story of dislocated Jewish history. The organization of the archives thus mirrors a key tension in the field’s historiography: is the history of French Jewry part of French history or part of Jewish history?

Zosa Szajkowski is to a large degree responsible for this particular archival constellation. In this sense, although much of what this unusual scholar did was clearly criminal, the effects of his actions were ultimately productive, laying the material as well as the intellectual foundations for French Jewish historical scholarship as we now practice it.

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