On Thursday, I attended a fascinating lecture at Drexel’s Judaic Studies department. The guest speaker was Lisa Moses Leff, whose new book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, is about Zosa Szajkowski, who single-mindedly rescued Jewish books and documents from Germany and France, as an immigrant American GI paratrooper during WWII.
Szajkowski brazenly used the U.S. Army free courier service to ship his parcels back — some two or three in a day — to New York, the last remaining branch of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He continued to steal Jewish documents after the war and he financed his own scholarship by selling them piecemeal to Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel; the two top buyers were the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College. He was eventually caught red-handed and he committed suicide in 1978.
When Dr. Leff, Associate Professor at American University, interviewed the elderly librarians who’d acquired the documents, knowing of their sketchy provenance, she found that they were proud of helping to rescue Jewish written material from the Nazis. However, some of the items were taken from institutions that survived the war, and there remain big gaps in the European archives. Everyone knew of Szajkowski in the library and archive community, but he was never publically named.
Ironically, the stolen documents have gained better care, having been catalogued and made available for scholarship. Indeed, when one librarian was asked about giving back the documents, he retorted that they — the European institutions — should pay for all the years of care and storage! Zosa Szajkowski, with his looting and his scholarship, singlehandedly established the field of Jewish historical research, using documents of ordinary Jews. So, do you think the end justifies the means?
On Tuesday night, I attended a viewing of the documentary film Refugee Kids, about an American program set up for refugee children. Run by the International Rescue Committee (founded by Albert Einstein to rescue Jewish refugees), the Refugee Youth Summer Academy transforms 120 kids speaking 26 languages from the world’s hot spots – Iraq, Egypt, West Africa, Tibet, Burma and Bhutan – from tongue-tied newcomers into confident, savvy New Yorkers over the course of a six-week program.
There is Helen, a 16-year-old Burmese refugee, who effortlessly translated from English to Burmese to Chin to Thai to Nepali. There is Tek Nath, who in his first six months in America, did more than most adults: he leased the family apartment, translated for the surgeons operating on his brother’s heart, applied for the family’s green cards, opened bank accounts, and tutored both parents and younger siblings in English – and all the while maintaining straight A’s in his school work. Tek Nath is a 17-year-old who had spent his entire life in a rural Nepalese refugee camp where he had virtually no English instruction.
George from Liberia had lost both parents at a very early age and was raised in Staten Island where he was confronted with the brutality of gang violence and yet still emerged as a student mentor, exhibiting leadership skills. There are also the siblings who faced long separations from their families: Rigzin and Tashi from Tibet who are reunited with their parents in Brooklyn after eight years spent at the Dalai Lama’s refugee school in India; and Ida and Jennifer from Togo who were raised by their aunt and encountered an unforeseen family tragedy — fire and death of a young sister– upon their arrival in the Bronx.
The directors, Renee Silverman and Peter Miller, added to their footage with interviews in the children’s homes and in their communities. The children narrated their often harrowing back stories in hand-drawn pictures, which were animated by the talented Brian O’Connell. Liz Swados, the beloved composer, recorded an original score before her untimely death. Editor Aaron Vega wove the many stories together into a cogent, short film as his last project before winning a seat as American state legislator in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Refugee Kids is the second film by Silverman and Miller, following their teen Holocaust theater story, Sosua: Make a Better World. Miller writes, “It’s something of a miracle that we were able to shoot, edit, and complete Refugee Kids for what might be the lunch budget of normal film, but we were blessed with generous and talented friends.”
The screening at Rodeph Shalom was sponsored by HIAS PA and the American Jewish Committee. HIAS PA runs a similar summer tutoring program, and it welcomes volunteer tutors and donations of books.
By Hannah Lee
This past weekend, my father-in-law startled me by saying that the assistance that I provide to my refugee clients may not be in their best interest, that it may even hamper the development of their own independence. He urged me to interview my parents and ask them about the difficulties in their first year in the United States as immigrants. No one helped them, did they? No, no one or any agency did. He continued: This country is great because of the immigrants who’ve come and succeeded– on their own. We do a disservice to them when we pamper them to the extent of inhibiting their own initiative.
I was so perturbed by this conversation that I sought out my Rabbi for a perspective based more on ethics than on Darwinism. How could I be doing wrong by my refugees?
More after the jump.
His teshuvah (halachic response) is that there must be a balance. Historically, the immigrants who have succeeded the most– the Jews, the Irish, the Koreans– did benefit from the assistance of their own communities. They did not wait for government handouts. Their brethren provided valuable resource in the guise of networking, interest-free loans, and employment opportunities. Everyone had to undergo the agony of cultural assimilation and the foibles of alienation. A family tale: My husband’s aunt came to visit her daughter in New York and because her Israeli accent was thick, the driver (who may have also been an immigrant and burdened with an accent of his own) did not understand her stated destination of Roosevelt Island, so he drove her to Riker’s Island, where the main prison is located and from where no taxis can be hailed! No, no agency could have helped her with her situation.
During this graduation season, I am witness to the different kinds of parenting among my friends and acquaintances. A woman from my shul told me she was renting a van to drive her daughter to Chicago and would I need anything brought home? No, I don’t want anything brought back home! Then, a dear friend told me she’d brought her housekeeper along to clean her son’s quarters upon graduation. By dint of unusual circumstances as well as personal choice, my daughter left for college by herself with only two bags and she has never asked us to drive her to or back from Chicago. She will be moving to her new apartment without our assistance. Her father has given her money for her living expenses, but we have friends who told their children that they are on their own after college (or they could move back home). I’m glad our daughter is motivated to being independent.
Babies thrive best when they have a safe and stable environment with nurturing caregivers. We endow our children with the resources of our families. They proceed to negotiate with the outside world on their own terms, drawing upon the family capital but also drawing on their own strengths and talents.
Immigrants are motivated for success by choosing to leave their families, their people, their land. You could say that they are pre-selected for success. However, as my Rabbi has noted, even individual hard work needs the benefit of siyatah d’shmayah (Heavenly assistance). So, I am relieved to conclude thus: my refugees do need help while they are learning the language and mores of our culture (and more than the 180 days that HIAS is contracted to provide). The Social Worker had cautioned me about not beguiling them with American generosity; however, she’s met refugees who came off the plane with so few possessions that they filled only two rice sacks! So, I’ll try hard not to pamper them needlessly. They will land on their feet and succeed, and I serve as their Advocate, the “angel” (if I could be so bold to say so) who could give them some assistance along the way.