Jew­ish Book Coun­cil is proud to intro­duce read­ers to the five emerg­ing non­fic­tion authors named as final­ists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. Today, we invite you to learn more about Lisa Moses Leff and her book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Sal­vaged French Jew­ish His­to­ry in the Wake of the Holo­caust, about a his­to­ri­an who wrote under the name of Zosa Sza­jkows­ki as the author of a prodi­gious num­ber of arti­cles and books on the his­to­ry of French Jew­ry while sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly pil­lag­ing the very archives where he did his research and prof­i­teer­ing off his plunder.

A warm con­grat­u­la­tions to Lisa and the oth­er four final­ists: Dan Ephron, Aviya Kush­n­er, Adam D. Mendel­sohn, and Yehu­dah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be tak­ing home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing nonfiction?

What you see on the page is such a small part of the work that’s behind it. I’ve had friends express total shock when they hear that it takes aca­d­e­m­ic his­to­ri­ans like me a decade to write a book. There’s so much research that goes into this that nev­er sees the page, so much think­ing that was nec­es­sary before you even put the sto­ry togeth­er, and then even after that there are false starts, dis­card­ed drafts, so much left out. 

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing nonfiction?

I love books that make you think and feel at the same time. I love books that are able to invoke big philo­soph­i­cal ideas and then make you real­ly under­stand on a gut lev­el what those ideas mean by con­nect­ing them to a sto­ry or an image. Some of my favorite his­to­ry books do that — for exam­ple, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost. I recent­ly reread Roland Barthes’s Cam­era Luci­da, which isn’t a his­to­ry book at all, it’s a the­o­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy, but it works in a sim­i­lar way. 

Who is your intend­ed audience?

I write dif­fer­ent things for dif­fer­ent audi­ences, but with The Archive Thief, I’ve been so hap­py that the book is reach­ing peo­ple who knew noth­ing about the top­ic before, as well as aca­d­e­m­ic experts. That’s what I was hop­ing for. When I’m writ­ing, I always imag­ine my stu­dents, many of whom come to my class­es know­ing noth­ing at all about the top­ic or even the method of study­ing his­to­ry. But I find that if I explain it right, they’ll see what’s inter­est­ing and be able to engage, often to the point that they’re able to offer use­ful crit­i­cism or take the ideas to a new lev­el. This is how I imag­ine my read­ers, too.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

Yes, I’m writ­ing a his­to­ry of the Pana­ma Affair, which was a finan­cial and polit­i­cal scan­dal involv­ing cor­rup­tion in the French com­pa­ny that start­ed to build Pana­ma Canal. The scan­dal broke in France in 1892 right before the Drey­fus Affair and real­ly cat­alyzed the anti-Semit­ic move­ment we asso­ciate with that peri­od. In spite of all evi­dence to the con­trary, anti-Semi­tes explained the Pana­ma Canal Company’s cor­rup­tion — which in real­i­ty grew out of the struc­tur­al weak­ness­es of the bank­ing sys­tem and the new­ly estab­lished democ­ra­cy — as a Jew­ish con­spir­a­cy, claim­ing that Jews con­trolled the banks and had demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed politi­cians and the free press in their pocket. 

What are you read­ing now?

I’m read­ing Tara Zahra’s new book, The Great Depar­ture, a his­to­ry of emi­gra­tion from East­ern Europe. It’s beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and puts Jews and non-Jews togeth­er in the same sto­ry, which is so rare and so enlightening.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

The Mem­oirs of Gluck­el of Hameln
A His­to­ry of the Grand­par­ents I Nev­er Had by Ivan Jablon­ka
A Tale of Love and Dark­ness by Amos Oz
Read­ing Loli­ta in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Call It Sleep by Hen­ry Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

In third grade, I had a won­der­ful teacher who had us write sto­ries in a note­book. I still have that note­book and love look­ing at it. I remem­ber think­ing that I had end­less ideas for sto­ries but always got frus­trat­ed with how they turned out. I felt like I could nev­er get my sto­ries to come alive. Writ­ing non­fic­tion, espe­cial­ly in an aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting, is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, but even there you want your prose to be clear enough so that peo­ple can under­stand things in a new way, so I often still grap­ple with that same frus­tra­tion: how do you make your ideas real­ly sing? 

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define success?

I think there’s a cer­tain trap in mea­sur­ing suc­cess by exter­nal mark­ers, though of course it’s won­der­ful to get a pres­ti­gious job or win a fel­low­ship or a prize. But aim­ing to get those things can some­times dis­tract you from what’s real­ly worth­while and what makes for a mean­ing­ful life. I think real suc­cess is in find­ing a way — mate­ri­al­ly, prac­ti­cal­ly, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, emo­tion­al­ly — to keep work­ing over the very long haul, to try new things even when they involve risk, to hear peo­ple when they tell you some­thing valu­able. Putting it in terms of the ques­tion, I’d say that rather than look­ing to reach a moun­tain­top,” I’m more focused on stay­ing on the journey. 

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

Writ­ing can be slow so patience is real­ly impor­tant! When I was writ­ing my dis­ser­ta­tion I said to myself that if I could write a page a day, I’d be done in a year. I know writ­ing doesn’t ever real­ly work like that: some­times it takes a week to write a page, and some days I’m on a roll and can’t stop writ­ing. But when I real­ly can’t stand it, some­times I still say to myself, A page a day means I’m done in a year,” because even now it puts things in per­spec­tive and gives me the patience I need to just sit and try again.

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

A lot of things! But I’d real­ly love it if read­ers were real­ly able to under­stand the ambi­gu­i­ty at the heart of the sto­ry. This is a sto­ry of some­one who did some­thing that was deeply shame­ful and wrong, some­thing crim­i­nal. At the same time, he was hero­ic and brave, and in the long run, what he did was as valu­able as it was destruc­tive. I think espe­cial­ly in Jew­ish non­fic­tion, we’ve got a lot of sto­ries about heroes, maybe too many. I think we’re some­times too afraid to tell sto­ries that chal­lenge Jew­ish respectabil­i­ty. But sto­ries like Szajkowski’s are just as impor­tant to tell and to think about, because they’re in many cas­es clos­er to real life and very much part of Jew­ish history.

Lisa Leff is a his­to­ri­an of Europe since 1789, whose research focus­es on Jews in France. She is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Wash­ing­ton, DC. She received her BA from Ober­lin Col­lege and her PhD from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago.

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