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Fine Young Criminal

The story of a yeshiva boy who turned to the gang life and lived to write about it

Eddy Portnoy
January 21, 2010
Nachalnik, with an advertisment for the premiere of his play “Din Toyre”(Photo from Yidishe bleter, April 20, 1938. Play advertisement from Moment, December 29, 1933. Scans courtesy of Eddy Portnoy.)
Nachalnik, with an advertisment for the premiere of his play “Din Toyre”(Photo from Yidishe bleter, April 20, 1938. Play advertisement from Moment, December 29, 1933. Scans courtesy of Eddy Portnoy.)

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.

Yitzhok Farbarovitsh was known as a good kid in the shtetl of Vizne, a small town in Russian-ruled Poland, in the years just before World War I. He excelled in cheder, Jewish elementary school, and, when he reached his tweens, was sent to another town in the Pale of Settlement to attend a yeshiva. Yitzhok was on track to fulfill his mother’s dream that he become a rabbi. But not long after his bar mitzvah, his mother died, sending the Farbarovitsh household into a depression, and throwing Yitzhok’s life onto a different track.

Stuck as a boarding student at the yeshiva, Yitzhok wrote his family letters asking about the future—would they be able to pay his tuition and continue supporting him? Nobody responded. In those days, yeshiva students who were boarders took occasional meals at the homes of local members of the community. One of these kindly hosts was a prostitute in a local brothel, whom Yitzhok visited on Thursdays for meals. Seeing that the boy had no means, the prostitute took Yitzhok in while he took it upon himself to convince her to quit her trade, explaining that her terrible sins would lead her to Hell. His reservations about her lifestyle were strong but not strong enough to make him quit her—he left school for a spell and stayed at her place. After all—he had nowhere else to turn for help, and, in spite of her unseemly vocation, she obviously had a heart of gold.

Some months later, Yitzhok returned to the yeshiva and, a few years after that, in his mid-teens, he took a job as a Hebrew teacher to a family in another nameless shtetl in the Pale. Essentially abandoned by his family and with little money outside of his meager teaching income, he became attracted to a group of shtetl toughs who randomly stole and shook people down for cash. Attracted to the underside of life, he soon apprenticed himself to a group of local thieves. He moved to Warsaw, where he ascended in the city’s underworld, working his way up from smalltime pickpocketry to well-planned heists of local businesses, and he formalized his pursuit by taking the name Urke Nachalnik, which means “brazen master criminal,” in the lingo favored by Yiddish-speaking Eastern European thieves.

Nachalnik landed in jail and went on to return to various prison cells a number of times. By his mid-30s, he had spent half his life behind bars, where he took up writing. During his last stint, an eight-year sentence for bank robbery that began in 1927 in Western Poland’s notorious Ravitsh Prison, he went to lectures given by Stanislaw Kowalski, a graduate of a nearby teacher’s college. Kowalski asked the prisoners to bring whatever works they had written in prison. Urke Nachalnik showed up with two novels and part of an autobiography, which kicks off as follows: “Before I begin the sad story of my life I feel bound to give at least a summary of the circumstances that led me away from the straight and narrow. I ask the reader’s forgiveness for first starting with a picture of my entrance into the world.”

Kowalski liked what he read and encouraged Nachalnik to keep at it. The teacher corrected and edited the autobiography and had it published as Zyciorys wlasy przestpcy, The Autobiography of a Criminal, by the prison authority in 1933.The story of a boy seemingly abandoned by his family who finds a place in the seamy underworld was an instant bestseller in Poland, becoming the most popular book of the year, serialized in Polish and Yiddish newspapers including Warsaw’s Haynt and New York’s Forverts. It was translated into a number of other languages.

Impressed by his literary celebrity and its implication that he’d turned his life around, the prison authorities released Nachalnik in 1933, two years before his sentence was up. He called himself a writer, no longer a criminal, and moved to a house in the woods outside Vilna, secluding himself to concentrate on his craft.

Nakhmen Mayzl, editor of Literarishe bleter, the most respected Yiddish literary journal of the day, visited Nachalnik at home. He was curious about this former thief, especially since he had begun writing in Yiddish instead of the Polish he picked up in jail. Living near Vilna meant that he was relatively close to the YIVO Institute, an organization that researched virtually all aspects of Eastern European Jewish life, especially the Yiddish language. Mayzl brought the former criminal into YIVO, where he showed him the Institute’s extensive collection of Yiddish criminal vernacular in the philology department. More than amazed that such a collection existed, Nachalnik was incredulous that an academic Jewish institution even existed. He wanted to contribute however he could, and, as Mayzl and a group of Yiddish scholars stood around him, he offered corrections and additions to their collection of crime vocab.

Having heard that Nachalnik was revealing their linguistic ciphers, Nachalnik’s former crime buddies accused him of hiding out in Vilna like a coward. Nachalnik claimed that he was done with his life of crime and wanted to create a safe home in which to raise his newborn son—he’d married and had a child shortly after his release from prison. But Nachalnik couldn’t keep away from Warsaw and, not long after, moved his family to Otwock, a suburb of the city. From there he made occasional trips into Warsaw, where he would visit the famed Jewish Literary Union, the heart of Poland’s Yiddish literary life. But he was ill at ease among the literati, he felt there like a “victim among thieves,” according to a 1946 article in the magazine Yidishe kultur.

Nachalnik’s serialized stories of the Jewish lowlife were a huge hit among the Jews of Poland and in early 1934, actors involved with the smallish La Scala Theatre (not the opera house in Milan) decided to stage a play based on his tales. La Scala wasn’t one of the top Yiddish theaters in Warsaw, but one that always managed to snag an audience with an attractive combination of classics, like Sholem Aleichem’s, Teyve the Milkman, and the Yiddish prurient, like Nachalnik’s Din toyre (Thieves Trial). The latter, which opened just after Christmas, 1933, drew big crowds not only because it brought the master criminal-turned-author to the premiere, but also because the play portrayed the street life of Jewish pimps, prostitutes, and criminals in its own raw reality, complete with nasty language and foul behavior. High-brow critics in the Yiddish press were hostile to the production and either ignored it, as they did with most of La Scala’s shows, or called it low-grade trash. “In La Scala Theater, they’re putting on ‘Urke Nachalnik’ and every serious and decent spectator is taking the play like a glob of spit in the face, as if they’d been raped,” read the opening lines of a front page editorial in the Yiddish Weekly for Literature, Art and Culture. “We are raising our voices against the degradation of Yiddish theater, against a play that spits hateful trash in the faces of a huge theater audience.”

After packed houses for first performances, the actors and stage-hands showed up at the theater for the third evening to find that all the electrical cords had been cut and all the costumes were missing. Even the set had disappeared. It was a mystery—the theater had been hijacked, but by whom? Gossips in town suggested that members of Warsaw’s underworld were furiously unhappy with the play, exposing, as it did, some of their trade secrets and, perhaps most damaging, their Yiddish slang. So, in an episode of practical criticism, they stole the whole set, the gossips said.

The actors and director put an advertisement in the afternoon edition of Unzer ekspres, a popular Yiddish tabloid, addressed to the “Erlikhe ganovem,” the “honorable thieves,” asking them to return what they’d taken. If they did, the ad asserted, the theater would not call the police. There was no response.

The theater managers didn’t know what else to do and sent for Urke Nachalnik. He made things right; he contacted some of his former cronies and every costume and piece of the set was returned, enabling the show to go on as scheduled.

Warsaw’s Jewish underworld was not the only group dissatisfied with the play. The socialist Bund’s arts magazine fulminated angrily against what they called theatrical “trash.” On the front page, an editorial griped that “when the prostitutes are on stage, talking their dirty talk, and the thieves are doing business in their pubs and hideouts, it’s ugly, it’s disgusting…. For three hours, the audience and the theater is dragged through the mud.”

Readers, though, seemed to like the mud and didn’t necessarily mind being dragged through it. The play was a minor hit.

As for Urke Nachalnik, he made good on his commitment to the literary life. He continued to write, more in Yiddish than in Polish, and he produced a number of works on crime-related topics that were consistently popular with Yiddish audiences. Among them were Der korbn (The Victim), Mokotov, and Yosele goy (Yosele the Goy), all of which contain vivid descriptions of underworld characters and their lives in prison and on the outside. These were published in Polish and in Yiddish papers in Poland and in America. The Yiddish dailies also serialized the subsequent volumes of his autobiography: Lebedike kvorim; Der letster klap (Living Graves: The Final Blow) and Videroyflebung, oder der oysgeleyzter (Resurrection, or the Reformed One). Exposing the Yiddish underworld was a tough business though, and he never received the critical recognition he craved, or one that was on par with his popularity.

Nachalnik’s publishing career was cut short with the onset of World War II. After the Nazis occupied Warsaw, he re-established contact with the criminal underworld and began to collect money and weapons for armed attacks against the Germans. In March 1940, he and a band of Jewish gang members attacked a group of Polish collaborators who had been hired by the Germans to attack Jews in the street. It was one of the first organized attacks of this kind.

According to Leyb Feingold, a Bundist leader who would later figure in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Nachalnik showed up at a meeting of Jewish underground leaders that included Mordechai Anielevitsh, a commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Bundist leader Michael Klepfish. At the meeting, Nachalnik demanded funding to organize immediate reprisals against the Nazis. While Anielevitsh supported the plan, the request was ultimately rejected. Ignorant of the mass extermination about to take place, even most Jewish underground groups didn’t think retaliation against the Germans would be a good idea. Nachalnik returned dejectedly to Otwock, outside of Warsaw, where he sabotaged the rail lines that led to Treblinka, helping a number of Jews escape from the trains; he then helped these people hide in nearby forests. Nachalnik was caught by the Germans in 1942, and as he was being led in shackles to his execution in the center of Otwock, he attacked his guard, causing nearby soldiers to shoot him to death.

Warsaw Ghetto memoirist Peretz Opoczynski commented in his article on smuggling in the Warsaw Ghetto that “we ought to erect a monument to the smuggler for his risks, because consequently he saved a good part of Jewish Warsaw from starving to death.” It might also be remembered that hotheaded Jewish criminals led one of the first attacks against the Nazis, Urke Nachalnik, writer criminal, at their head.

Itzik Gottesman’s Yiddish song-of-the-week blog features an interesting recollection of a song from Urke Nachalnik’s play, Din-toyre, recorded for your listening pleasure.

Eddy Portnoy, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is the Academic Advisor and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is also the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.

Eddy Portnoy is academic adviser and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press 2017).