What do a Polish, ex-Communist Holocaust survivor who stole Jewish manuscripts from archives until he committed suicide when caught, and a saintly, mystical, Zionist rabbi whose teachings still resonate, have in common? At first glance, very little. But biographers of these two 20th-century Jews just won the lucrative Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature, administered by the Jewish Book Council.
Thanks to this happy coincidence, readers can encounter two excellent but contrasting meditations on modern Jewish survival whose power grows when juxtaposed.
The current mass mourning for Elie Wiesel highlights a defining modern Jewish reality: We are the quintessentially traumatized people. Just as our enemies blazed terrible new trails in murdering us, the survivors blazed new trails in showing how to absorb, process and transcend the horror.
The question asked in Tokyo about Fiddler on the Roof – how could Americans understand a story that was “so Japanese” – captures Wiesel’s genius. He – and others – articulated a particularly Jewish response to this uniquely Jewish trauma that was universally understandable, digestible, transferable.
Wiesel’s life-affirming life rebukes the subject of the main prize-winning book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, by the American University historian Lisa Leff. Leff won $100,000 for her compellingly ambiguous portrait of Zosa Szajkowski, a Jew born in Bialystock who saved many rare French Jewish documents during World War II – and then continued pillaging archives after the war ended.
Leff explained in an interview that her book shows “what happens to a person” when crushed. Szajkowski’s wartime actions were “extralegal but heroic.” The thousands of documents he acquired – even dubiously – ended up safely in American and Israeli collections. But after the war, never “able to make it,” he kept stealing, exploiting friendships with archivists.
“He was going back and repeating the actions” that once earned admiration, Leff observed, still motivated “by spite.”
“First it was spite against Hitler, now, it was spite” for various insults, real or imagined, she said.
The book comes alive thanks to Leff’s own archival Eureka – over 1,000 letters “in terrible Yiddish handwriting” that Szajkowksi wrote. The result is a fascinating and very human portrait of a man broken for good reasons by great evil. His angry, graspy, sleazy postwar self was a logical response to his sufferings – and highlights the grandeur of those survivors who restored their psyches and souls.
Beyond this psychological drama, The Archive Thief addresses memory’s elusiveness, noting how we perceive documents depending on their context. When located in its natural habitat, a French Jewish community census reflects an integrated community in an emerging nation state.
Uprooted into a Jewish history library collection in New York or Jerusalem, the same document makes French Jews look like wandering Jews.
Surprisingly, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution by Brandeis University’s Yehudah Mirsky, echoes some of these themes.
The winner of the $25,000 Choice Award offers a concise, readable, insightful look at the righteous rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook.
Born in 1865, Rav Kook faced his own hardships, enduring Czarist anti-Semitism, poverty, the death of his 22-year-old wife and, after moving to Palestine, Arab riots and ultra-Orthodox harassment. Yet Kook “taught Zionism as redemption.”
In two sentences that capture Kook’s buoyant brilliance – and reflect the historical, ideological and intellectual forces Mirsky masters to explain Kook – he writes: “In his extraordinary lyric vision, fueled by the Kabbalah, Western philosophy, the rise of nationalism, and socialist university, the secular idealism of the early Zionists became fused into a great surge of human history toward its final resting place in God. To a disciple who asked for a summation of his philosophy, he replied that everything – humanity, the world, the divine itself – is rising.”
Indeed, this spiritual titan, who could see the messianic redeemer hidden behind the Zionist pioneers’ gruff exterior and anti-religious rhetoric, offered a theology of hope that became even more important to the Jewish people in the horrific years after he died in 1935.
Fittingly, these two works are being feted by a family whose own story reveals Jews’ superhuman survival skills.
George Rohr surprised his father, Sami, on his 80th birthday in 2008 by establishing these annual Jewish book awards in his honor. The elder Rohr, who was born in Berlin in 1926, escaped Germany with his family 13 days after Kristallnacht, wandering through Europe before becoming a real estate magnate in Bogota, Colombia.
By the time he died in 2012, Sami Rohr and his family had donated more than $250 million to Jewish causes. That generosity continues with these awards and the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute, which unites Rohr prizewinners and judges in “a community for Jewish literature.”
Every other year, the Rohr prize ceremony takes place in Israel, the land of thriving survivors, as it did at the King David Hotel on July 5.
Accepting the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel said that “hope is possible beyond despair” aided by “the mystical power of memory.” For a people that emerged from what he called “the kingdom of the night” – yet still face bloodthirsty enemies – the opportunity to revel in Jewish ideas, generosity, creativity, vitality and memory in a rebuilt Jerusalem is a particular blessing. How lucky we are to have givers like the Rohrs, writers like Leff and Mirsky, and thinkers like Wiesel to resist Szajkowski’s spite and teach us all to contribute, however we can, to Rav Kook’s communal “rising.”The writer, a professor of history at McGill University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy