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The Archive Thief

The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust
Narrated by: Suzanne Toren
Length: 9 hrs
Categories: History, 20th Century
3.5 out of 5 stars (7 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish historian Zosa Szajkowski gathered up tens of thousands of documents from Nazi buildings in Berlin and, later, public archives and private synagogues in France and moved them all, illicitly, to New York. In The Archive Thief, Lisa Moses Leff reconstructs Szajkowski's story in all its ambiguity. Born into poverty in Russian Poland, Szajkowski first made his name in Paris as a communist journalist. In the late 1930s, as he saw the threats to Jewish safety rising in Europe, he broke with the party and committed himself to defending his people in a new way, as a scholar associated with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Following a harrowing 1941 escape from France and US army service, Szajkowski struggled to remake his life as a historian, eking out a living as a YIVO archivist in postwar New York. His scholarly output was tremendous nevertheless; he published scores of studies on French Jewish history that opened up new ways of thinking about Jewish emancipation, modernization, and the rise of modern antisemitism. But underlying Szajkowski's scholarly accomplishments were the documents he stole, moved, and eventually sold to American and Israeli research libraries, where they remain today. Part detective story, part analysis of the construction of history, The Archive Thief offers a window into the debates over the rightful ownership of contested Jewish archives and the powerful ideological, economic, and psychological forces that have made Jewish scholars care so deeply about preserving the remnants of their past.

©2015 Oxford University Press (P)2015 Audible, Inc.

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Thief, Salvager, OCD Inflicted, or Traumatized Man

I did not care for this book. I boldly redirect you to: The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman. Fishman's book succeeds. The title, the story, the details, the development of a clear thesis were all lacking in Leff's The Archive Thief. I gave up after listening a few hours as the ambiguity was too pronounced. Speculation rich, the actions and the motives of the "Archive Thief" leave too much unclear. I do not think the author's grasp was good enough to make a compelling story. Of value to me, I reflected on how so many European records hold documents of atrocities over the centuries without shame. I thought about how in the United States, we debate reparations for slavery shames of the past. I thought also about how European cultures and countries do not acknowledge their torchings, expulsions, bad laws, . . . Resolution may not be with monetary reparations; I think the best reparations has to do with present and future behaviors. This is complicated. I don't have the answers.

Since I did not finish the book, I cannot make a conclusion on the premise that this is a biography of a man who salvaged French Jewish History or not; there were some anecdotes, but I felt the speculative nature of the presentation and the seemingly gaping holes in data were large. Do Jewish historians and archivists have a "right" to the documents of, for example, the history of Jews of Speyer and their felt atrocities over 1000 years? Of course. Is snipping pages out of archives surreptitiously right? No. Is the documentation kept as a neutral document, a source of pride, or a source of shame? Were actions taken to reconcile the wrongs of the past by the archive possessors? This is where the story begins. In the now. Thank goodness we now have scanners!