Some heroes of Jewish history are better known for their deeds than for their personalities, like Sylvain Lévi, president of the Alliance israélite universelle until his death in 1935. A great expert on Eastern religion, literature and history, who co-authored a dictionary of Buddhism and taught Sanskrit at the Sorbonne, Lévi has been little remembered as a man.
That’s because in 1940, when the Germans invaded Paris, Lévi’s widow Désirée destroyed private papers which might be “compromising.” Scant surviving material was seized by the Nazis and only resurfaced in 1990 in Russian archives, having been seized in turn from defeated Germany in 1945. Readers of 2007’s “Returned From Russia: Nazi Archival Plunder in Western Europe and Recent Restitution Issues,” published by the Institute Of Art And Law know the complex mechanics of such rediscoveries, but for Lévi, it meant private letters were once again known to exist.
These missives, to his nephew and to the recording secretary of the Alliance israélite universelle, have just been published in Paris by Éditions Honoré Champion, edited by Roland Lardinois et Georges Weill. What emerges is a picture of a ferociously disciplined mind, as would be expected from a scholar who made pioneering inroads into Nepal, India and Tibet before 1900.