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History Professor Lisa Leff Wins Major Jewish Literature Prize

By Rebecca Basu

Zosa Szajkowski

Zosa Szajkowski. Courtesy Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.

American University History Professor Lisa Leff is the recipient of the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, a program of the Jewish Book Council, for her non-fiction work ‘The Archive Thief’ (Oxford University Press 2015). The largest literary prize of its kind – an award of $100,000 - the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature honors emerging writers who explore the Jewish experience in a specific work of non-fiction and fiction in alternating years. 

'The Archive Thief' tells the story of the interesting, complicated Jewish historian Zosa Szajkowski (Shy-KOV-ski), who in the aftermath of the Holocaust, gathered up tens of thousands of documents from Nazi buildings in Berlin, and later, public archives and private synagogues in France, and brought them all, illicitly, to New York. 

Szajkowski intrigued Leff. Why did he steal? Was this an unethical act or a desperate bid to save Jewish culture from wholesale destruction in the Holocaust? 

From humble beginnings to refugee scholar

Szajkowski's contributions to Jewish scholarship, based in part on documents he stole from France, allowed for new ways of thinking about Jewish emancipation, economic and social modernization, and the rise of modern anti-Semitism. His story unfolds as the balance of power in the Jewish world shifted from Europe to America and Israel.

Born into poverty in Russian Poland in 1911, Szajkowski was a self-made man who became an intellectual and journalist in 1930s Paris, and then a scholar. In 1941, when Szajkowski made a harrowing escape from war-ravaged France, he brought the stolen documents to New York.  

"The rumors about Szajkowski that circulate in the archives today tend to cast his story as either a heroic tale of rescue or a sordid tale of theft," Leff said. "His story is a little bit of both, and one can't ignore the motivations of the scholars, librarians and others surrounding Szajkowski at the time."

At the end of the war, Judaica librarians in America had come to think of their libraries as saviors and preservers of a European Jewish patrimony that had barely escaped total destruction, Leff explains. Seeing their own work within the framework of rescue led them to perceive Szajkowski as a rescuer as well. 

"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," Leff says. "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."  

'Act of salvage'

Although Szajkowski was gainfully employed as an archivist, he continued to steal beyond the post-war period. He was first denounced as an archive thief in Strasbourg, France, in 1961, after he was caught stealing from that city's archives. In 1978 he was found dead. 

"The week before, the police had caught Szajkowski stealing rare pamphlets from the New York Public Library," Leff said. "Facing not only criminal prosecution, but also the certain end of his career as a historian and an archivist, Szajkowski took his own life by drowning."

Still, the view of Szajkowski as a savior of French-Jewish history remains. 

"As awareness of 'The Archive Thief' grows, many are responding to Szajkowski's story with deep empathy and even a degree of admiration," Leff says. "Yet it's clear that the story remains unresolved. Librarians in France, the United States, and Israel are now thinking about what should be done with the papers Szajkowski removed from France." 

Through Szajkowski's story, Leff turns on its head the idea that archives are monuments to state power. On the contrary, Leff says, the picture is messier, as some archives are assembled by the weak in an act of salvage, or in desperate scrambles of preservation.

Debate over whether the return of the Iraqi Jewish Archives (currently in U.S. possession since 2003) should go to Iraq or to Israel, where a large community of Iraqi Jews are now exiled, shows the struggle over Jewish archives held in places where Jews no longer live, and the deep need that refugee groups feel to preserve the remnants of the past they left behind.

"Had Szajkowski not done what he did, where would we be today?" Leff says. "It's entirely possible that scholars would not have been able to reconstruct French Jewish history without access to the sources he brought to light." 

This year, in acknowledgement of the 10th anniversary of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, the winners and finalists will be celebrated at a public program, sponsored by the Jewish Book Council together with the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The program will be held at the museum on May 18, 2016 at 7 p.m.  

The winners and finalists of the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Nonfiction will also be honored at a private ceremony in Jerusalem on July 5, 2016.

Editor's Note: This story was updated on April 13, 2016.