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

Lisa Moses Leff, "The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust"
English | ISBN: 0199380953 | 2015 | 294 pages | PDF | 5 MB

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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Tags: Archive, Salvaged, French, Jewish, History, Holocaust

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