James McAuley is a Marshall Scholar pursuing a doctorate in modern French history at the University of Oxford.

On Sept. 26, 1978, a man was found dead in a Midtown Manhattan hotel, having drowned himself in the bathtub. He had been facing criminal prosecution for crimes committed just the week before. This particular thief, however, did not steal diamonds or savings bonds. He stole historical documents, thousands upon thousands of rare pamphlets and books that he pursued doggedly for decades in libraries across the world.

His name was Zosa Szajkowski. Born in 1911, he was a prolific historian of French Jewry who had been condemned repeatedly after World War II for stealing archival materials from European libraries, which he then sold to American institutions. These, to his mind, were far more suitable homes for Jewish cultural patrimony after the Holocaust: If Europe had collaborated in the Nazi annihilation of Jewish life in Europe, the continent had therefore forfeited its moral claim on the traces of Jewish culture that had somehow survived.

But were Szajkowski’s actions always noble attempts at restitution? Or were they pathological, the obsessive tendency of a crazed collector and thief?

Lisa Moses Leff, a historian at American University in Washington, explores these issues in “The Archive Thief,” her excellent case study of a man whose dubious mission is more than just an interesting footnote. “Szajkowski’s story,” Leff convincingly shows, “resonates far beyond French Jewish history, because it forces us to reconsider our understanding of the very nature of archives.” The story may be that of a thief who stole documents very few have ever seen, but, in certain respects, it is ultimately a powerful parable of the hidden politics behind the writing of history.

‘The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust’ by Lisa Moses Leff (Oxford Univ.)

An archive, after all, is a curious thing. It is a repository of documents, letters and records, all of which are indispensable materials for scholars who hope to produce any kind of credible historical analysis. But the archive is also fundamentally selective and, as a result, political: Certain documents survive while others do not. If victors write history, they also build archives. As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida put it, “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not memory.” Michel Foucault would go even further, insisting that the archive was not the “library of libraries” but the set of boundaries around what could — and could not — be said. The archive, in other words, contained more than mere documents: Its true contents were the parameters of discourse.

Szajkowski was a historian, albeit one with unusual credentials. In his long career, he produced an impressive bibliography of 11 books and hundreds of academic articles, but more important, he challenged the concept of the archive, its purpose and boundaries.

In 1927, he left his native Poland for the Pletzl of Paris, the French capital’s large interwar Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant population, a community of nearly 150,000 as ablaze with intellectual energy as it was with a commitment to maintaining Jewish life through socialism, Zionism or assimilation. It was in this environment that Szajkowski, a budding journalist, was introduced to the passion that would animate his career: preserving Jewish texts and artifacts, whatever the price.

This, Leff reveals, was largely an influence of his mentors, Elias and Rebecca Tcherikower, and the institution they helped found — the storied Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (YIVO), known today as the Institute for Jewish Research. YIVO, established the same year the Hebrew University in Jerusalem opened, aspired to become the diapsora’s counterpart: With different sections headquartered in different cities, it was an academic institution devoted to modern Jewish history with a particular interest in contemporary Yiddish civilization. For many, preserving the records of that civilization meant preserving the civilization itself. This, initially, was Szajkowski’s aim — a project complicated by the unfolding of events.

With the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism, Szajkowski escaped to the United States in 1941, where he settled in New York and eventually served in the Army. But throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he traveled to Europe frequently, each time taking home with him archives from local, national and even Jewish archival sites in France and elsewhere. By lifting these archives from European localities that had permitted the murder of Jews — archives that classified these episodes as isolated instances in specific national contexts — Szajkowski, through an archive of his own design, was, in his mind, creating a Jewish national narrative.

At first, in the uncertain aftermath of the war, scholars in the United States and Israel viewed these efforts as restitutions, but over time, when Europe no longer suppressed Holocaust memory, their meaning and import were hardly as clear. After a Strasbourg archivist caught Szajkowski stealing 18th-century documents in 1961, a police investigation revealed the extent of his thefts — as well as the profits he had made in selling his loot. The restitution warrior began to seem less heroic. And what was his purpose when he was caught, before his suicide, stealing rare pamphlets from the New York Public Library’s Judaica collection, where they were surely safe in an institution without a collaborationist past? Was Szajkowski simply trying to order events beyond his control? Or by then was he just a thief, no longer capable of distinguishing between his purpose and the thrill of the chase?

These are some of the thorny questions Leff raises in her thought-provoking book. “In a multicultural world in which victimized groups are frequently on the move,” she writes, “where are the remnants of their past best kept? Who has the right to make such decisions?” If Szajkowski is an intriguing, if scandalous, anomaly, perhaps the great achievement of “The Archive Thief” is that he appears, in the end, something of a universal figure, negotiating, as all historians do, a narrative of the past in the politics of the present.

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

By Lisa Moses Leff

Oxford. 286 pp. $29.95