One of the convenient aspects of studying Jewish history is its 3,000-year-old paper trail—the texts and records of the rabbinical and intellectual elite allow us to examine contours of Jewish law and history. But we tend to know less about the lives of average Jews, who didn’t receive much attention in the writings of the intellectuals. That began to change in the late 19th century, when the Yiddish press hit the streets, for the first time recounting the lives of the unwashed masses of Jews in the public record. Tablet Magazine offers some of their stories, reconstructed from century-old newspaper accounts.
Feivel Goldschwartz, a 21-year-old worker in a Warsaw clothing factory was a stand-up guy. In 1927, he and 18-year-old Reyzl (Ruzhe) Shulkleynot had been an item for six months and were engaged to be married. Reyzl accepted the thin engagement ring Feivel offered her, even though the young man’s family was against the match; they thought Reyzl was low-class trash and didn’t want her in the mishpokhe. They weren’t entirely wrong; Reyzl’s mother had died when she was a baby and her father, who was well known to Warsaw police as a fence, raised her alone on a particularly rank stretch of Volinska Street, a road in one of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Family pressures grew too strong and eventually Feivel was persuaded to dump Reyzl. He wanted to end things on a happy note and broke the news on a hot July night. They took a walk. Feivel wanted to get his ring back and offered Reyzl 20 zloty for it. Realizing their engagement was over, she took the money and gave him back the jewelry.
The breakup seemed amicable and Reyzl asked if Feivel would walk her to her apartment building, which also housed a low-end brothel run by Rivka “the Cow” Linderbaum and her son, Khatzkel, a notorious pimp. Feivel agreed to escort her to the front steps. When they got there, the two began to kiss. In the shadows at the side of the stairs, Reyzl began slithering downward, descending to her knees. Though they were broken up, Feivel didn’t stop her. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain like none he’d ever felt before. He collapsed on the macadam and looked up at Reyzl, cackling as she made her way up the stairs, her face and blouse spattered with blood. Feivel looked down. She had bit his penis in half.
Feivel screamed. A pool of dark blood had already spread around him. People came running. Someone called an ambulance. Someone also went to Feivel’s house and told his sister Golda he had been attacked. She raced to Volinska Street, bumping on the way into Reyzl, whose face and neck were flecked with dried blood. “Your brother got stabbed at the whorehouse! He was there to find another bride-to-be!” Reyzl told Golda angrily. Realizing she wore incriminating stains, she quickly added, “I got all this blood on me when I tried to help him.”
Feivel was rushed to the Jewish hospital on Tshista Street. Though emergency-room doctors were able to staunch the bleeding, they were concerned that the young man would contract blood poisoning, which could kill him. Meanwhile, word about the attack spread in Jewish Warsaw, and the hospital was deluged with curious gawkers. The crowd situation became so bad, that doctors were forced to hold an impromptu press conference announcing that Feivel Goldschwartz was expected to survive and although he would have to live with a defective penis, he’d still be able to produce children. What a relief.
The Warsaw police arrested Reyzl and her father that night. He said he didn’t know anything about what transpired and that he was sleeping soundly at home at the time the young man’s tragedy occurred. Reyzl also hotly denied that she had anything to do with the incident, telling the police that she was on her way home when she saw that Goldschwartz had been “done.” While the police released her father from custody, Reyzl was held in the local precinct’s clink.
Adding insult to injury, detectives came to the hospital and charged Goldschwartz with corrupting a minor after Reyzl informed them she was not actually 18. Even worse for poor Feivel, Haynt, one of the city’s Yiddish dailies, published a report that claimed the boy did not bear “any ill will toward Reyzl and still wanted to marry her.” The same paper reported that he was the one who had attacked her that night on the stairs. Infuriated, he was forced to give an exclusive interview to a competing daily, Moment, in which he vehemently refuted these claims.
All of this exhausted poor Feivel and his condition worsened. While he languished in the hospital on Tshista Street, Reyzl sat in jail, though she was occasionally brought to court for hearings. Huge crowds gathered to howl at her during these perp walks. Once, a herd of angry rubberneckers attacked some other female hood who’d been misidentified while being escorted by police to jail. As a result, Moment printed a photograph of the real Reyzl so that people could see her likeness and refrain from attacking random maidens who “might be her.”
While Feivel’s condition vacillated, Reyzl waited fearfully in prison. After all, if he died, she would be tried for murder. Fortunately for her, the penis-repair department at Warsaw’s Jewish Hospital succeeded in saving the young man and she was charged with assault and forced to serve a relatively short sentence.
No one knows what ultimately became of Reyzl Shulkleynot or, for that matter, Feivel Goldschwartz and his defective but working organ. They were but two urban denizens who disappeared into the Jewish urban maelstrom that was Warsaw during the late 1920s.