Unraveling the Story Behind the ‘Robin Hood’ of French Jewish History

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Zosa Szajkowski, the Polish-born Jewish historian, stole thousands of French Jewish documents during the 1940s and 1950s and sold them to Jewish research libraries in the United States and Israel. Was this a heroic act of preservation — or simply theft?

Is theft ever justified? Can the end ever justify the means? On Feb. 25, a case in point came to the attention of a rapt crowd at Drexel University. Zosa Szajkowski, the Polish-born Jewish historian, stole thousands of French Jewish documents during the 1940s and 1950s and sold them to Jewish research libraries in the United States and Israel. The question to be addressed: Should his criminal acts be frowned upon or applauded?
The Judaic studies program at Drexel hosted American University history professor Lisa Moses Leff as she spoke about her recent book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust. Was this a heroic act of preservation — or simply theft?
“He was a thief  — and people realized that,” Leff told the Jewish Exponent. “I would say the European libraries are very mad about what he did.”
Leff, who was doing graduate research in France from 1996 to 1997, began to notice numerous missing documents. As she asked other historians why, they all gave the same one-word answer: Szajkowski.
“For me, hearing those stories as a graduate student in France was kind of amazing,” she said. “You couldn’t do research in this field without encountering his name.”
Why would the man —a respected scholar and journalist — become a thief? Furthermore, she pondered, why would libraries buy documents from him if they knew the stuff was stolen?
Szajkowski’s passion for history began in the 1930s. He followed his brothers to Paris and, around 1934, became associated with the Jewish communist party, where he began to grow intellectually.
He first established himself as a journalist and wrote for the communist newspaper. His attitude and perspective on life changed when he met Elias and Riva Tcherikower, Russian-born Jews living in Paris.
 “They filled him with a love for scholarship,” Leff said.
The Tcherikowers managed the historical section of the Vilna-based Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO). Founded in 1925, YIVO was dedicated to preserving as well as studying Jewish culture in all of its complexity.
While they were already committed to archiving, their other reason for being interested in Jewish history was the horrific pogroms they witnessed in Russia.
However, in 1939, France went to war and the family and Szajkowski moved to New York City.
“But they couldn’t forget that they had left behind: not only family, but the archives as well,” Leff said.
Szajkowski had one thing on his mind: continuing their work of archiving French Jewish history. So, he signed up with the U.S. Army and went overseas with a secret agenda of stealing documents. He was assigned as an interpreter for the 82nd Airborne Unit, which was the paratrooper unit that landed in Normandy the night before D-Day in 1944.
He fought throughout Germany and France and, during that time, took every bit of leave and opportunity to abscond with artifacts from synagogues. Among the purloined treasures he preserved is the French Jewish Communities Record Group at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which includes several documents that came from French synagogues in the 19th century.
“He didn’t believe that France was a secure spot for this stuff,” Leff explained.
His criminal activity continued even after Germany was liberated. He stayed in Berlin, where he worked as a translator and, of course, in his spare time, hunted for archives. By 1945, he was sending two to three packages of letters a day to libraries in America, most of which went to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
“It’s clear that they” — the librarians who were the recipients of Szajkowski’s larcenous largesse — “regard Szajkowski as some sort of hero,” she remarked. “The law was not keeping up with what was right. What was right was to take orphaned Jewish stuff to where there were Jewish people.”
In September 1978, Szajkowski committed suicide while waiting to face charges of stealing rare pamphlets from the New York Public Library.
 In retrospect, Leff reasons, Szajkowski was a businessman who was a historian at heart. He knew the best place for the archives was America, but more importantly, he was supporting himself financially, so he sold the letters to different places.
“They were trying to build collections that could be used for the Jewish people,” she said. “The problem was not Nazis looting, but Szajkowski looting.”
Contact: jcohen@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747

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