The Yiddish-Speaking Hitmen’s Union

November 1, 2021


The Old World was a good place for Jews to be before they arrived in the United States. Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Detroit's Purple Gang are some of the most well-known Jewish mobsters of the 20th century, but they are not the same as predecessors in the Old World. Szczepan Twardoch's novel has been translated. The King of Warsaw.The story of a Yiddish-speaking hitman with a side hustle as a professional boxer is a good read and a reminder of the full range of Jewish life in Poland. We would rather remember people like rabbis, scholars, artists, businessmen, and politicians than people like beggars, bums, imbeciles, crooks, and gamblers, because the world was destroyed by the Nazis. This is the case for most Jewish historians as well as for the public.


What do we think of Twardoch, a non-Jewish Pole who has written a crime novel featuring a Jewish mobster who slices and dices a fellow Jew? Will there be complaints from the cultural appropriations department? Maybe. If Jews are to take their history and literature seriously, they should be able to accept Jews of all kinds in historical and literary works. If the product is good, it shouldn't matter who writes it. Twardoch has made aspects of interwar Jewish Warsaw come alive by going into the lower depths of Jewish gangland. The last time a Jewish crime story reached the heights of Polish bestseller lists was in 1933, when Urke Nachalnik published his jailhouse memoir. He was released from prison early because of the book's popularity.

The King of Warsaw. The story of a boxer who works for a sports club in Warsaw and is involved in various gangland activities, including extortion and murder, is told in a way that is reminiscent of the movie "Reservoir Dogs". Twardoch paints violence more than he writes it. His book contains vivid accounts of brutality and bloodshed. His partner in crime is a Polish socialist named Buddy Kaplica, who is also a mobster. There are a lot of characters in the picture, from the wholesome to the grotesque, and all of them are perambulate. Take, for instance, a person who is rat-faced, skinny little Munja.

He had a dark hair and a black mustache. Munja said he was a Jew, but he was a little Polonized and assimilated, so he was taken for a Gypsy. He came to Poland in 1925 and was said to know Chinese. He was notorious for pulling out a knife in a fistfight and shooting a pistol in a knife fight, but he didn't follow the traditions. He smoked like a chimney and had an ugly mustachioed wife who frightened him more than Kaplica, so he showed up at home only once a week.

The story of the washed-up Israeli general who was taken under his wing as a boy by Szapiro is told from his perspective. Twardoch has a good style and he frequently adds historical and philosophical musings. The reader can ruminate with the writer about ideology or historical truth before being thrust back into a melee of fists and knives.

Twardoch is said to have been inspired by Jerzy Rawicz. Doktor Lokietek is a person named Tasiemka.There are bits of a Polish-Jewish boxing champion and a political/socialist mobster in the book.

Twardoch has an ability to remove real-life events from history and make them into his depictions of gangland Warsaw in 1937. Some of these are major characters and plot points, but others are simple throwaways that most readers won't understand. Nasz Przeglad is a person.Warsaw has a Jewish daily newspaper.

These are details that a historian would only notice. He creates a realistic depiction of interwar Warsaw, its streets, its clattering markets, its whorehouses, its upscale restaurants, and its denizens, all of which suck the reader into an atmosphere in which Jewish people live. He doesn't shy away from depicting harsh Polish antisemitism but does avoid the tangled thicket of religious culture because they are secular. Twardoch is dedicated to his characters. He is still exploring their personality until he kills them off.

Sean Gasper Bye was the translator. I have a few quibbles, mostly boxing related, but it is solid and provides a fine narrative flow. A boxer enters and exits the ring wearing a robe, not a gown, but a small mistake. The local gym where Szapiro coaches is called Star. The reader is not able to know that the Gwiazda Gym was owned by the Left Labor Zionists, who had the best Jewish boxing club in Poland during the 1930s. Twardoch introduces Szapiro's brother, a Labor Zionist who is trying to convince his brother to emigrate to Palestine.


The translator did not fault the name of one of the main characters, but it is related. It is likely that Twardoch discovered this character and her brothel in Jerzy Rawicz's book, which is called "Ryfka de Kij." Twardoch shortened it to "Ryfka Kij" but didn't tell the reader where it came from. The nickname is actually a real person from Warsaw's Jewish Underworld, and it is called "Rifke di ki" or "Rifka the Cow" in Polish-Yiddish dialect. Rifka Linderboym was a notorious madame. She ran some of the city's best-known brothels, including one in the heart of the Jewish quarter at 27 Wolinska Street, where many terrible crimes took place.

Had survived as a Yiddish. One could imagine a Polish language. The King of Warsaw. We are left with only a linguistic echo in Twardoch's occasional use of the Warsaw Yiddish dialect. Twardoch has reached deep into Poland and has taken its Jewish history with both hands. He has created a portrait of a multicultural Poland that no longer exists.


The world of pre–World War II Jewish Warsaw was made up of many different groups of Jews. Warsaw was the main Jewish cultural center in Eastern Europe. It was the largest Jewish city in the world in the 1930s. The focus of the Holocaust's tragedies is on how the victims died, rather than how they lived.

The Jewish culture in Warsaw was created by many different Jewish communities. It was a wide and rich human world, from synagogues and yeshivas to sports clubs and women's organizations. It is on one of the city's forgotten Jewish subcultures. , The King of Warsaw. Also touches on many other people. It lifts the massive stone sitting on Warsaw's history and reanimates what is beneath.

  1. Great essay! Portnoy's review in his book 'Bad Rabbi: And other strange but true stories from the Yiddish press', excavates aspects of pre-war Jewish life that were forgotten in the Holocaust. The saccarine pieties bar the full richness and drama of Jewish life until the Portnoys save History from its commemorating institutions.


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