Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday reading: rescue, thievery, and the archival salvage heap

Oh, the things you find when you're procrastinating on the Internet.  I was avoiding working on upcoming presentation when I came across "The Book Thief," a thought-provoking Tablet article by historian Lisa Leff.  Any archivist interested in the history of archives, the transatlantic movement of European Jewish cultural heritage materials, or the impact of war and genocide upon the historical record should read it.

Leff focuses on pioneering historian and archivist Zosa Szajkowski (1911-1978), who spent most of his young adult life in France and emigrated to the United States in the early 1941.  He returned to France in 1943 as a U.S. soldier and devoted his wartime and postwar years to tracking down materials that documented the history of French Jewish communities and giving or selling them to American repositories.  To many American archivists and Jewish community leaders, Szajkowski is a hero who ensured that archives and rare books documenting the history of French Jews were rescued and rehomed inAmerican repositories.  To many French archivists and Jewish community leaders, Szajkowski was a thief -- he was arrested in 1961 for stealing documents from the Strasbourg Municipal Archives -- who robbed French Jews of their cultural patrimony.  Leff examines the social, political, and cultural currents that led American Jews and many European Jewish emigrés to conclude that European Jewish cultural heritage materials should be brought to the United States and French archivists' postwar efforts to rebuild their damaged institutions and concludes that both perspectives are partially correct. Before and during the Second World War, Szajkjowski helped to save materials that might otherwise have been lost or destroyed.  However, after the war, he became a thief -- as evidenced by his 1961 arrest in Strasbourg and his arrest for stealing rare pamphlets from the Judaica Room of the New York Public Library (!) a week before his death.

Leff's analysis of Szajowski's complicated career also leads her to qualify the arguments that Derrida and Foucault made about archives and state power:  instead of serving as a centralized monument to state power, the archives that document Europe's Jewish communities are scattered in ways that reflect the disasporic nature of Jewish settlement and the postwar rise of the United States as a center of Jewish life.  They also highlight aspects of the archival endeavor that some people might find distressing:
On the one hand, the creators of archives rescue the past for us.  They gather together and preserve records from the past, making it possible for historians to study them.  On the other hand, there is also violence in the project of archiving.  The very process of making an archive re-contextualizes documents and -- in subtle or not-so-subtle ways -- changes their meaning.  Rather than the work of the powerful, some archives, at least, are actually the work of the powerless.  If our understanding of archives is broadened to include all those who shaped their histories, these institutions look less and less like a coherent monument and more and more like a salvage heap.
 Read this article. It's well worth your time.

 "The Book Thief" is a distillation of arguments that Leff made in "Rescue or Theft? Zosa Szajkowski and the Salvaging of French Jewish History after World War II, Jewish Social Studies:  History, Culture, Society n.s. 18, no. 2 (Winter 2012): 1-39.  If you have access to JSTOR or Project Muse, you should be able to access this article.