The Archive Thief

Theft from cultural institutions such as museums, historical societies, libraries, and archives has become a staple of publishing in recent years (as my earlier post on map theft perhaps suggests). Lisa Moses Leff, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) is an important contribution to this scholarship, and it may be the best study of archives theft done to date.

Leff follows the career of a Jewish scholar, Zosa Szajkowski, self-educated and never the holder of a university position, who between 1940 and 1961 stole “tens of thousands of documents” from archives, research libraries, and institutions in France before fleeing to New York after being convicted of document theft in Strasbourg, France (p. 2). Leff offers this study because understanding how archives are formed is important because it significantly impacts the nature of surviving raw materials that are essential for exploring the past. Despite the lack of formal education, Szajkowski was given access into back rooms of libraries and archives because of his established scholarly record and professionalism (another common trait in what we see when investigating such thefts).

The Archive Thief is an exquisitely research study, a task not easily carried out because of the nature of documentation available: “Researching the backstage of archives is no easy task. Archives and libraries rarely make their internal records available to researchers, and some do not even keep them for more than a few years” (p. 6). Now there is something that the archival community could fix. It is, after all, not the first time we have heard such comments. A couple of decades ago, when pressure mounted on museums, archives, and libraries to come clean about materials acquired as a result of looting during the Second World War, there were similar sentiments expressed about access to their records and the ways that false provenance was established in many instances.

The environment that this scholar-thief worked in was the chaos immediately following the Second World War, a period when many archives and libraries were destroyed or heavily damaged. Szajkowski preyed on institutions and individuals who were trying to rebuild their lives and their nation. Archives were significant in these efforts: “For this nation without a state, an archive . . . was a portable tool that could be used in their struggle to achieve recognition and perhaps even justice from the world community. . . .” (p. 41). Szajkowski helped move archives from country to country and saw himself as a hero in rescuing such treasures. In an era when it was not difficult to find “willing buyers” of cultural materials (p. 22) and when collecting of the sort that he did was “relatively widespread” (p. 130), Szajkowski stands out for both his rescuing and his theft of these historical sources. Leff reminds us that many archivists did not call attention to the items looted from their collections and that the French archives were a mess in the post-war era. “Obscured in its darkness, a thief could sometimes be hard to detect” (p. 166). This method of avoiding publicity about theft is, of course, a long-time problem in the security of archives. The fear of damaging their reputations has long restrained archives and archivists from taking action to counter such loss of their holdings.

There are many significant characteristics about archival theft that emerge from this detailed investigation. There is the invisibility of archivists. “When scholars find precious manuscripts or objects in the field and use them for scholarship,” writes Leff, “it is they who are remembered” (p. 68). Given archivists’ propensity to not want to bring attention to themselves in circumstances such as theft, maybe that is not so bad. I suspect archivists could change this if they were more forthcoming about such incidents. It is also interesting that this individual “transformed” the documents by writing on them, cutting them, and rearranging them (p.182), to such an extent that in many instances it is impossible to reunite them with related records from which they were removed. In most studies of such theft, the focus is on the thief making money. Szajkowski’s case is a bit more complicated: “In a world before photocopies, let alone digital photography, this foreign scholar was stealing documents to make his research trips more efficient. Then, like a student selling back books at the end of the semester, once he finished the study for which he needed the documents, he turned around and sold them” (p. 186). Despite his own self-worth of documenting the Jewish people in France and of saving sources related to this and other topics, Szajkowski, in addition to making donations to various repositories, also sold not only to libraries and archives but to anyone willing to buy them.

Leff concludes her study with an interesting observation about the nature of archives. In the last paragraph of the book, she states, “Our usual conception of what archives are is thus challenged by taking into account the historical factors that shaped them. Archives are not made by the powerful alone; the weak also play a role in their construction. If our understanding of archives in general is broadened to include those who shaped their histories, these institutions look less and less like coherent monuments, and more and more like salvage heaps” (p. 204). After a generation of scholars focusing on the nature of power in the formation and protection of archives, this observation suggests another fruitful area for scholarly inquiry: the role of happenstance, volunteers, personal connections, and other influences on the shaping of archival collections and programs.

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