Thursday, August 13, 2015

Lisa Moses Leff's "The Archive Thief"

Lisa Moses Leff is a history professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and author of the recent history book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust.

Here Leff dreamcasts an adaptation of the new book:
The Archive Thief is about a Jewish historian named Zosa Szajkowski (Shy-KOV-ski) who stole tens of thousands of documents from the archives in France between 1940 (during World War II) and 1961 (when he was caught red-handed). What interested Szajkowski in the archives was anything that could be used for writing the history of the Jews of Europe— government documents, synagogue records, Jewish charity organization record books, you name it. Some of the stuff dated back to the 18th century, most of it was from the 19th and 20th century. He took all his booty back to the U.S., where he used it as evidence in his books and articles, and when he was done, he sold the documents off to American Jewish research libraries, which still have them today.

Ever since I started writing this book, people have asked me who would play Szajkowski in a future movie version. It’s a strange question for an academic to consider, but this isn’t your typical academic book. Szajkowski’s a fascinating character and the story is full of drama— so perhaps a movie adaptation will indeed be in the cards. I’ve certainly given the casting enough thought! The bulk of the action takes place before and during World War II, when Szajkowski served as a soldier first in the French Foreign Legion and then later, for the U.S. Army.

--For Szajkowski: Joaquin Phoenix. Szajkowski was both a tough guy and an intellectual— self-made, determined, and smart. He was emotionally strong, solid to the point of being hard. He saw firsthand the destruction of his family and his people and had the wherewithal to act decisively when he needed to, both to save himself and to help his people. Later, though, after the war, he showed signs of psychological damage. But he was still hard, a criminal hiding a shameful secret. Phoenix can play a hero, but also a rogue, and his strength of character comes through in every role he plays.

--For Ilusha and Riva Tcherikower: Liam Neeson and Susan Sarandon. Ilusha and Riva were a generation older than Szajkowski, and the closest thing he had to family once his siblings and parents were killed in World War II. They were childhood sweethearts in Russia who had lived through revolution and some of the worst anti-Semitic atrocities in history. They faced life as intellectuals devoted to their people and when Szajkowski met them in the 1930s, they were in their 50s already (he was only in his 20s) and they inspired him to care about history and see it as the best way to defend and protect the Jews. After Ilusha died in 1943, Szajkowski and Riva became even closer- their correspondence from World War II has the intimacy of a mother and son.

Neeson is perfect in the role of an engaged intellectual— and Sarandon’s warmth and flirtatiousness is exactly what Riva exuded in her correspondence with Szajkowski.
Learn more about The Archive Thief at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue