Lisa Moses Leff was a young Ph.D. student working on a thesis about Jews in modern France when she first realized that something was wrong. She was combing through archives in Paris looking for sources when it became apparent to her that many things that should have been there were missing.
Dr. Leff started asking around and discovered that these documents had been stolen by Zosa Szajkowski, a famous Jewish historian who, like her, had gone to France from the United States to do research. She was intrigued by the fact that a serious historian, someone who was arguably the founding father of her own academic field, also had been an archive thief.
Her curiosity was piqued.
She wondered what would motivate a historian — someone whose professional life ostensibly is dedicated to writing about and preserving the historical record — to steal tens of thousands of documents related to Jews from across French archives. And it seems that Mr. Szajkowski was a historian. Although he was an autodidact who had earned no academic degrees, he wrote hundreds of scholarly articles. As someone who could be viewed as the founding father of an academic field, he no doubt was respected as a serious historian.
Then she considered the fact that Mr. Szajkowski had also sold the stolen documents to Jewish research libraries in the United States and Israel and realized that it was not likely he would have stolen so many documents over so many years if the libraries hadn’t been part of the story. So she began to wonder why the libraries bought the stolen documents.
This part of the puzzle had a personal component, too, since these were the libraries where Dr. Leff had been doing her own research. At that point, her focus shifted from her original research plan, which involved using the documents, to researching the story of the documents themselves.
Dr. Leff was interested in Mr. Szajkowski’s personal motivations as well as in the historical context in which the thefts and sales happened. In her 2015 book, “The Archive Thief,” Dr. Leff, now a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. and director of the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, talks about Mr. Szajkowski’s background and explores the evolution of his motivations over time, as well as how the libraries and the broader Jewish community came to think about the purchases.
Dr. Leff will talk about the book at Temple Emeth in Teaneck on October 14. (See box.)
Born to a Jewish family in Poland — his original name was Shayke Frydman — in 1911, Mr. Szajkowski lived in Paris in the 1930s, served in the French army at the beginning of World War II, and then was in a concentration camp. He lost his entire family in the Holocaust but managed to escape to the United States in 1941 and subsequently returned to Europe as an American soldier. Mr. Szajkowski began to collect some records while serving in France, first as a French and then later as an American soldier, but when he was stationed in Berlin after liberation in 1945, he gathered significantly larger numbers of documents and illicitly sent them to the United States.
While these document transfers certainly violated U.S. army regulations – technically it was looting – Mr. Szajkowski explained his actions at that time as an effort to move the documents for safekeeping, to rescue Jewish history from the conflagration in Europe.
This type of desperate, history-driven mission was not uncommon at the time. For example, there was Oneg Shabbos, a group that illicitly gathered and buried archives in the Warsaw ghetto. Some of the Oneg Shabbos archives are at YIVO – that’s the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research — and it is a massively important trove.
Mr. Szajkowski actually donated some of the transferred materials to YIVO in 1945, while later transfers to institutions appear to have been sales, suggesting that his earlier motives may have been more altruistic than his later ones.
And the institutions that received the stolen documents during, and immediately after, the war were thrilled with what Mr. Szajkowski was doing. He was treated as a hero.
But why did Mr. Szajkowski continue to steal documents in later years? Some of the thefts were from public archives but many were from Jewish organizations and institutions, including very old synagogues. As a historian who had explained his research interests, Mr. Szajkowski was trusted and granted access to the documents, but that trust seemingly was misplaced.
Was he motivated by the promise of financial gain? Was stealing documents a way to facilitate his research? Or maybe he went a little crazy – perhaps he’s one of those survivors who didn’t quite survive. Maybe his horrific experiences, and his dangerous efforts to collect documents during the war, continued to inform his thinking when it came to the safety of archives. Maybe he continued to believe that Jewish archives could never really be safe in Europe. “I think all of those are factors,” Dr. Leff said.
Yes, efforts were made to get some of the documents back, some as early as 1950, and some items were in fact returned, but Mr. Szajkowski still was able to sell documents later, so these efforts didn’t shut down his operation. He was also caught and prosecuted in France in 1961 and did not return to France after that, but that didn’t stop the operation either; he continued to sell the materials he had in his possession. And he was caught stealing materials from the New York Public Library shortly before he committed suicide in 1978, so Dr. Leff suspects that he continued to steal from libraries regularly even after he stopped traveling to France.
And why did libraries continue to buy the stolen documents?
“This story allows us to think about bigger issues in the world of Jewish research and the world of Jewish archives,” Dr. Leff said. The book explores such questions as where do Jewish archives belong? Do they belong in the centers of Jewish populations now – presumably Israel and the United States? Or do they belong in the places they came from – perhaps areas that once were vibrant Jewish population centers? There was a flourishing Jewish community in France in the 1950s when Mr. Szajkowski was still stealing its archives. Did he see that population as not having an interest in, or a right to retain, their historical documents? The Jewish institutions that bought documents from him didn’t seem to be worried about that. What role did the shifting balance of power in the Jewish world play in the story?
Dr. Leff is also interested in much more basic questions. Why did the Jewish community care so much about these documents? “Throughout Jewish history, Jewish communities have been subject to expulsion,” she said. “It’s really only relatively recently that there have been real concerns about documents. Why now?”
Dr. Leff will discuss some of these questions as she talks about the morality of the parties’ actions and how it shifted over time.
Who: Dr. Lisa Moses Leff
What: Will deliver the annual Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg memorial lecture and will talk about “The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French
Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust”
Where: Temple Emeth in Teaneck
When: Friday, October 14, at 8p.m.
And also: A festive Shabbat dinner will precede the lecture at 6 p.m.
For more information: Email Temple Emeth member Elaine Pollack at firstname.lastname@example.org.