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

Lisa Moses Leff (Author)


In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Jewish historian Zosa Szajkowski stole tens of thousands of archival documents related to French Jewish history from public archives and collections in France and moved them, illicitly, to New York. Why did this respectable historian become a thief? And why did librarians in the United States and Israel accept these materials from him, turning a blind eye to the signs of ownership they bore?

With her award-winning book, The Archive Thief, Lisa Moses Leff reconstructs Szajkowski's gripping story in all its ambiguity. Born into poverty in Russian Poland in 1911, Szajkowski 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 accomplishments lay his shameful secret: his pathbreaking articles were based upon documents that he moved illicitly to New York. Eventually, he sold these documents, piecemeal, to American and Israeli research libraries where they still remain. Leff takes us into the backstage of the archives, revealing the powerful ideological, economic, and psychological forces that made Holocaust-era Jewish scholars care more deeply than ever before about preserving the remnants of their past. As Leff shows, it is only when we understand the issues at the heart of his story, in all their ambiguity and complexity, that we can begin to address the larger questions of the rightful ownership of Jewish archives, as well as other contested archives, that are still at issue today.

Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
Publish Date
August 01, 2018
6.1 X 0.8 X 9.2 inches | 0.9 pounds

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About the Author

Lisa Moses Leff is Professor of History at American University, where she is also affiliated with the Jewish studies program. She is the author of Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The Rise of Jewish Internationalism in Nineteenth-century France.


"[A] riveting portrait of an enigmatic scholar and a reflection about the construction of archives....[A] richly researched, lucidly written and, ultimately, deeply moving book....Lisa Moses Leff has made an invaluable contribution to the expanding literatures on postwar communal reconstruction and Jewish cultural restitution."--Geraldine Gudefin, H-Judaic

"The Archive Thief is a richly researched, lucidly written and, ultimately, deeply moving book The book is all the more engaging that its author is able to situate Szajkowski's actions within the context of postwar discussions about the rightful ownership of archives. Finally, Leff makes a very persuasive argument about the ambiguous legacy of Szajkowski's collecting and sales."--Geraldine Gudefin, H-Judaic

"How the chaos, needs, and rivalries of post-Second World War Jewish collectors and institutions played into [Szajkowski's] hands, is the subject of Lisa Moses Leff's engrossing and painstakingly documented book. Her research was made all the more demanding by the fact that there is no way of knowing all that is actually missing from collections. It is the wider context of her book that is so fascinating, for it raises important questions about the very nature of archives themselves, particularly what she calls 'archives of catastrophe.'"--Times Literary Supplement

"Through Szajkowski's personal biography, Leff has illuminated the larger story of how Jewish archives and libraries were constructed and reconfigured in the aftermath of World War II, as the centers of gravity in the Jewish world shifted from Europe to Israel and the United States...Leff casts new light on this transformative moment in postwar Jewish life. As a result of her beautifully written and deeply researched book, we have a greater appreciation of the degree to which the libraries and archives on which we depend are themselves "historical artifacts." In this sense, Leff's thought-provoking and imaginative book raises questions that will intrigue all historians. This work also constitutes a fitting tribute to a man who, despite his flaws and weaknesses, made immense contributions to the field of Jewish history."--Jewish History

"[A] brilliant new book...Leff has produced a page-turning account that offers a model for how post-Holocaust Jewish history should be written. The work ponders questions that should interest both specialist and generalist readers and ought to be assigned widely and debated extensively."--English Historical Review

"[A] superb book...Pages fly by as her meticulous and surprising study of the extraordinary life of her 'hero' keeps her reader breathless...[A]n astonishing work of history, founded on a group of original documents by means of which she raises fundamental questions about the very nature of the archive as it fluctuates between being a state memoir and a way to preserve a particular history and culture."--Journal of Modern History

"Lisa Moses Leff tells Szajkowski's fascinating story in a book as gripping as a crime novel, with profound insight into the role played by archive collections in the modern construction of national histories Leff creates a complex portrait of this 'archive thief, ' who was no simple villain Szajkowski's story is stunning and Leff tells it exceptionally well. The Archive Thief is a meticulously researched scholarly work that deftly incorporates archival sources, Szajkowski's published writings, and his private correspondence. It is beautifully written and sophisticated without ever becoming pedantic."--H-France

"The Archive Thief is a richly detailed and sympathetic portrait that unfolds with elements of a detective story. In writing about the trajectory of Szajkowski's life and career, she raises provocative questions about the nature of collecting, the role of archives and where they belong, and the very writing of history."--Jewish Week

"Leff, in this deeply researched and intriguing book, draws a nuanced portrait of a scholar who turned to crime to preserve his status as a historian of modern Jewish history."--Times of Israel

"A work of learned detection and a history of the making of history, this absorbing study is also a portrait of, perhaps, the oddest of all creators of modern Jewish scholarship. A shy, roguish, charming man, self-taught, an erstwhile Communist and fighter in the French Foreign Legion, Zosa Szajkowski's jagged, complex life is explored in this work with perceptiveness, and commendable empathy."--Steven J. Zipperstein, Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, Stanford University

"With her dogged research, keen analysis and scintillating writing, Lisa Leff in The Archive Thief marries historical scholarship with the detective genre. The story of Zosa Szajkowski could have been - and maybe still will be--the stuff of a great mystery novel, played out on multiple continents, with a perplexing villain who sometimes seems like a hero. But instead Lisa Leff has used these details to show the complex work done by archives and the deep ideological meaning associated with the documents of the past."--Hasia Diner, Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History and Director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, New York University

"Why did an accomplished Jewish historian steal tens of thousands of historical documents? In unraveling that mystery, Lisa Moses Leff has created a compelling personal portrait, while at the same time elucidating key issues of Jewish history and historiography in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, The Archive Thief is more than just a fine work of scholarship; it is also a page-turner."--Aaron Lansky, author of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

"One of Leff's many illuminating discussions treats the impact of Szajkowski's thefts and the role of archives and archivists generally in shaping the history we tell." World Literature Today