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The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged…

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

by Lisa Moses Leff

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Leff’s focus is on an historian who wrote under the name Zosa Szajkowski, who at the same time he was authoring a prodigious number of articles and books on the history of French Jewry, was also systematically pillaging the very archives where he did his research. He was transformed over his lifetime from a leading scholar of French Jewish history who heroically rescues documents, to a thief of manuscripts, selling books and pages he had stolen to academic libraries. Szajkowski was born in 1911 to a poor family in a small town in Poland, moved to Paris when he was 16, and eventually escaped Hitler’s Europe in 1941 by fleeing to the United States. He was a book loving young boy and despite his lack of a formal advanced education, he wrote several groundbreaking studies of Jews in France in the pre and post war era. After his escape to the U.S., Szajkowski returned to Europe as a G.I. 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 and shipping them to YIVO in New York. Suspicions grew about his pilfering and selling documents to major collections in the U.S. and Israel. It was not until 1961 that he was caught red-handed by librarians in France, however, another decade passed before he was finally arrested in New York. In an article written in Jewish Week it was said that “not many books by historians seem like the stuff of feature films’ but Leff’s Archive Thief “seems like a cinematic natural.”
  HandelmanLibraryTINR | Sep 27, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199380953, Hardcover)

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish historian Zosa Szajkowski gathered up tens of thousands of documents from Nazi buildings in Berlin, and later, public archives and private synagogues in France, and moved them all, illicitly, to New York.

In The Archive Thief, Lisa Moses Leff reconstructs Szajkowski's story in all its ambiguity. Born into poverty in Russian Poland, Szajkowski first made his name in Paris as a communist journalist. In the late 1930s, as he saw the threats to Jewish safety rising in Europe, he broke with the party and committed himself to defending his people in a new way, as a scholar associated with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Following a harrowing 1941 escape from France and U.S. army service, Szajkowski struggled to remake his life as a historian, eking out a living as a YIVO archivist in postwar New York. His scholarly output was tremendous nevertheless; he published scores of studies on French Jewish history that opened up new ways of thinking about Jewish emancipation, modernization, and the rise of modern antisemitism.

But underlying Szajkowski's scholarly accomplishments were the documents he stole, moved, and eventually sold to American and Israeli research libraries, where they remain today.

Part detective story, part analysis of the construction of history, The Archive Thief offers a window into the debates over the rightful ownership of contested Jewish archives and the powerful ideological, economic, and psychological forces that have made Jewish scholars care so deeply about preserving the remnants of their past.

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 22 Jul 2015 11:33:34 -0400)

"In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish historian Zosa Szajkowski stole tens of thousands of documents from France and sold them to libraries in the United States. To understand why he did it, Leff takes us "backstage" at the archives and reveals 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"--Provided by the publisher.… (more)

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