Following the Archives: Migrating Documents and their Changing Meanings

Our understanding of “migrant knowledge,” for the most part, sits at the intersection of migration studies and the history of knowledge. And these areas of study typically focus on people. I do not mean to challenge actor-centered approaches to migrant knowledge, but I would like to add to the conversation the idea that knowledge migrates by way of documents and that archives are part of the migratory history of knowledge and knowledge-making. Indeed, when confronted with the concept of migrant knowledge, I was forced to think about my own archival experiences, which have centered on not only migration but also commodification and confiscation.

James Jordana, Lisa Leff, and Joachim Schlör argue that historians must be more aware of the “history of displacement and dispersion … It has become nearly impossible to write the history, be it in terms of culture, or politics, or economy, of any Jewish community or institution by simply ‘going there’ and working one’s way through the archive.”[1] But where is the “there”? Michel-Rolph Trouillot points out that historians are confronted with a “cycle of silences” when creating their narratives. These silences enter, he says, during the making of the archives on which historians depend.[2] Indeed, “Historians alone do not set the narrative framework into which their stories fit.”[3]

About nine years ago, I began research for a dissertation project on Yiddish-speaking Jewish migrants in France during the 1920s and 1930s. I figured I would do most of my research in Paris and perhaps some at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. Almost all researchers working on Yiddish cultural history pass through the YIVO archives at some point, and I knew this. Much to my surprise, the result of my naiveté, I have collected materials from over seventeen archives and libraries in five countries. This project, which I always envisioned as transnational because of its focus on migration and Yiddish culture, took on a new dimension. Mine was a story of what happens to archives, where they go, and the battle one goes through to push back against the narrative that a particular locale can impart on sources.

Why are documents about Yiddish-speaking Jews in interwar France all over the world? There are three, maybe four, answer to this question. One, and the easiest answer, was that many were acquired and sold to various research libraries and archives, mostly in the United States. Many of the documents I tracked down were taken from archives in France and ended up at places such as Harvard University, Columbia University, and YIVO. There are other files, unrelated to my work, on French Jewish history in holdings across the country.

Much of this was the work of Zosa Szajkowski, whose story is richly told by Lisa Leff in The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust (2015). Szajkowski is actually someone I write about in my forthcoming Yiddish Paris: Staging Nation and Community in Interwar France. There he interests me not for his sticky fingers but for his participation in the development of Yiddish Paris during the 1930s. Szajkowski had a knack for finding documents in France. He used this talent to support his own historical writing and then sold the files in the United States. Many consider his efforts an act of resistance and the man a savior, especially with an eye to the 1940s. But it was also theft, most clearly if one considers that his actions continued into the 1970s. In addition to moving the documents, he shaped how many scholars understand French and Jewish history in the first place. His mainly Yiddish-language publications based on these documents contain what became the standard narratives of much of this history. When in 1942 YIVO published its two-volume account, Yidn in frankraykh (Jews in France), five of its nineteen essays were by Szajkowski.

The other culprits affecting my understanding of Yiddish Paris and the whereabouts of relevant archival documents were those Nazis who stole relevant police archives from the police prefecture in Paris and the ministry of the interior, among other institutions, and took them to Berlin. These files were ultimately stored in Czechoslovakia, before they were “liberated” by the Soviets and taken to Moscow. These records were then repatriated back to Paris between 1994 and 2000 and are now known as the “Fonds de Moscou” at the Archives nationale Site de Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. Twice stolen, these archives are now available to researchers.

Arlette Farge was right. There really is an allure to the archives. There is something about finding documents, holding them, thinking about what they mean, and constructing a narrative to detail your understanding of them. In Jewish history, especially twentieth-century European Jewish history, falling in love with the archives also means hunting for the archives. Farge uses a water metaphor to describe the immersive experience: “When working in the archive you will often find yourself thinking of this exploration as a dive, a submersion, perhaps even a drowning … you feel immersed in something vast, oceanic.”[4] In fact, actual oceans were involved in the case of Jewish history, but one has to cross them.

On my first research trip to Paris, I went straight to the places where I expected to find my Parisian sources: the Bibliothèque Medem-Maison de la Culture Yiddish, the Centre Medem–Arbeter Ring, the French Communist Party (PCF) archives, and the Archives of the Préfecture de Police, Paris, among others. At the police and PCF archives, I noticed holes. Why were there references to materials in other documents but those documents were missing? For example, why does it seem that there were supposed to be documents from the Kultur-lige, a transnational Yiddish cultural organization in interwar Europe, in the PCF archives, but there were no actual traces of them? Why did they turn out to be at Columbia University? Such relocations affect how we read the documents, of course, but they also demonstrate the power that the migration of people and then archival records has in shaping our knowledge.

Here is how these dispersed, displaced, and diasporic sources have affected my reading practices. I was not, like in the movie version of this story, sitting quietly in an old dusty room for months, poring over boxes of materials, looking up curiously when I finally found the document or documents, previously undiscovered by others, that would define my work. Instead, I was hopping from one place to another, taking photographs as quickly as I could, and then going back home to sift through and read what I had collected. In some cases, the dispersion I encountered—to put it nicely—had the potential to affect anyone’s understanding of the materials, including my own. For example, some of the records Szajkowski stole or rescued ended up in institutions like YIVO and Hebrew Union College, which suggested a potentially Jewish historical understanding of the documents. Or they were regrouped and described in Jewish terms like those in the libraries at Columbia and Harvard: “Zosa Szajkowski Collection, ca. 1900–1939” and “Judaica Documents, France: Collection 5,” respectively. In Paris, these records would have been found in places ranging from the Police Prefecture archives to the French Communist Party archives, to name just two. And I know now that there are records at each of these two French institutions that would have still stood side-by-side with the ones now in New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, had the latter not been removed and relocated to the United States. Many of the documents I worked with came from the same place, but ended up in different institutional homes. There are also some records still in Paris cataloged in Jewish institutions, which in their cases were their “original” archival home. The Fonds de Moscou further complicates matters because of how these materials are now housed and treated. The narrative of the documents, too, gives them an air of survival, resistance, and homecoming.

So what does all this mean? What did I do with this scattering and reshaping of information and institutional settings?

As the institution that houses these pieces of history changes, our understanding, our overall knowledge and interpretation of a time and place, will change too, if we are not careful. As Jordana, Leff, and Schlör say about Jewish archives, they “can be seen as one way of ensuring the continuity of historical narratives during times of insecurity. In this sense, the archive functions as a method of survival.”[5] But ensuring that survival sometimes changes the documents’ contexts. What Farge observes of all documents takes on increased significance in the context of migrated files: “The archival document is a tear in the fabric of time, an unplanned glimpse into an unexpected event.”[6]

In terms of twentieth-century European Jewish history, we know about the events that caused Jews to migrate throughout not only Europe but to the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas, too. Hyperaware of these journeys while writing my dissertation, I tried to envision what the documents would look like to me, had I found them in their original repositories. Would the files in communist archives in France be coded only “communist”? Or would they also be read as “Jewish,” thus illuminating something more broadly about migrant, immigrant, leftist, communist, and Jewish experiences? In order to appropriately shape the questions I posed and answers I gave, I tried to imagine these documents as both national and transnational. As stationary and migratory. Had I assessed them before their migration, how would I have understood them? And afterwards? Essentially, I tried to virtually reassemble—via the photos, copies, and scans I produced—a new global archival home for these documents, which happened to fit nicely on my computer.

This act fundamentally shaped my understanding of these archival findings, which range from posters, song lyrics, playbills, theater scripts, and photographs to typed official documents for internal use. I started to see these items as “Jewish” documents that were part of a “French” archive or alternatively as “French” sources now in a “Jewish” archive. Ironically, this mental resituating enabled me to think beyond the places in which I had found the material. The resituating broadened the story I was able to tell, and sharpened my analysis of the sources I had found. I was able to put these documents into conversation with others I was reading. When I virtually laid them side-by-side, they told a different story, one much broader than simply the rise of Yiddish culture in interwar France.

This rediscovery, re-recognition, and re-organization of place helped me to think about Yiddish culture as an important aspect of twentieth century French and Jewish migrant, cultural, and political histories. It was this method that led me to coin the term “Franco-Yiddishness,” which I now employ to discuss how Yiddish-speaking immigrants in France utilized culture as a means through which to consider themselves French on their own terms. For these Yiddish-speaking Jews in France, Yiddish was seen as a viable carrier of both Jewish culture and French identity. The search for these documents and the ultimate realization of their meaning spanned oceans. And the knowledge I gained by assessing their actual places—historic, actual, and imagined—was larger. It was global, demonstrating how the migration of documents and archives can change our knowledge and understanding of the world. How does history look when the allure of the archives, institutions that we might erroneously see as static, helps us to recognize that histories of migrant knowledge ought to include histories of migrating sources?

Nick Underwood is currently a tandem fellow in the history of migration at the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington, at UC Berkeley. He is the managing editor of East European Jewish Affairs and American Jewish History, and a project manager at the Digital Yiddish Theater Project.


  1. James Jordana, Lisa Leff, and Joachim Schlör, “Jewish Migration and the Archive: Introduction,” Jewish Culture and History 15, nos. 1–2 (2014): 1–2.  ↩
  2. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995; Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2015), 26.  ↩
  3. Ibid.  ↩
  4. Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 4.  ↩
  5. Jordana et al., “Jewish Migration and the Archive,” 3.  ↩
  6. Farge, Allure of the Archives, 6.  ↩
Suggested citation: Nick Underwood, “Following the Archives: Migrating Documents and their Changing Meanings,” Migrant Knowledge, April 18, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/04/18/following-the-archives/.