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The Archive Thief

The Archive Thief, by Lisa Moses Leff, is an interesting read, although I found it ultimately unsatisfying. The parts are all interesting, well-documented and well-written, but they don't quite hang together as a coherent story. Since this is not a story, but instead a book about a real person, that's perhaps excusable.

Szajkowski was a speaker of Yiddish and, although he spoke several other languages, did most of his writing in Yiddish. He was prolific, beginning as a journalist and moving into scholarly historical writing. He did not have an advanced education, but became fascinated by finding historical documents and bringing them into relation with one another.

As a young man, he moved from Poland to France. At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the army, was injured, and ended up in the south of France where he managed to stay out of the internment camps. He was helped by the Sharps -- or the group they were working for -- to get out of France. In the US, he joined the armed forces and was a paratrooper on D-Day. In Berlin and France, after the war, he collected documents and archives fanatically including both evidence of Nazi crimes and looted Jewish documents.

He struggled after the war. Yiddish never really came back after the war and his efforts at publishing in English were only marginally successful. At some point, he turned to stealing archival materials. Eventually, when it appeared certain his crimes would come to light, he committed suicide. The book turns on trying to comprehend his motivations which are, in the end, unknowable.

I was attracted to the book for a couple of reasons. First, because I'm working with the Special Collections folks at UMass trying to put together archives about Esperanto. But also having just read A Bridge of Words and Defying the Nazis, I was interested to read another take -- a very different take -- on eastern-European Jewish experience. Unsurprisingly Zamenhof and Esperanto aren't mentioned, but many of the same issues are.

A central question to Szajkowski was whether Jews were better off to assimilate or to remain apart. By assimilating, they gained economic benefits and had less discrimination, but they lost their identity and language. It was a question that Szajkowski struggled with and would have probably answered differently at different points in his life. After all, assimilating hadn't protected the French Jews from the Holocaust.

I see this question echoed in the question about the interna ideo of Esperanto and the more current question of whether Esperanto is a movement or a hobby. Humphrey Tonkin has argued that what has sustained Esperanto was the moral authority that a social movement required. But it is also echoed in the commitment that Zamenhof made to universalism: to no longer pursue the agenda of the Jews -- or any particular nation or people -- and to only aim for what is best for all mankind. It's not a commitment that many of us can make.

Religion or ideology

Donald Trump continues to announce his extreme right-wing picks for his cabinet. Each one seems worse than the next. I am particularly disturbed by the choices of Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon.

Both Flynn and Bannon believe that the United States is, or ought to be, a Christian state. They believe "we" are fighting a war against Islam, which they say is an "idealogy" rather than a religion. They seemingly get that first amendment protects "religion", but evidently take this to mean that by labeling a religion as an "ideology", it should not receive protection. But if they believe in the first amendment, they will also recognize that "we" are not Christian. Steve Bannon says:

when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything

Note: It says "securitization", but based on comments elsewhere in his speech, I believe he means "secularization", e.g. "The other tendency is an immense secularization of the West. And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration" and "I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals".

Bannon is putting his finger on a problem: that capitalism has become unmoored from any other measure of morality. But to make the assumption that the only kind of morality worthy of consideration is a Christian morality leads us down a very dark path indeed.

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