Warsaw

Urke Nachalnik

more than a year ago
Heard of Yitzhok Farbarovitsh? Or perhaps Urke Nachalnik - the name by which this Jewish gangster turned noted author and war hero is better known? We’d imagine not, in which case stop what you’re doing and give a moment to one of modern Poland’s more interesting and forgotten characters. Born in Vizne (now 'Wizna') - a small shtetl in northeast PL, Farbarovitsh's early life is largely a mystery, including the exact year of his birth - 1897 asserts one source, 'before WWI' another. What we know for certain is that the young Yitzhok was a diligent student who harboured high hopes of becoming a rabbi. However, it all went wrong for him shortly after his bar mitzvah when his mother’s death left him high and dry. Farbarovitsh was at the time away studying at a yeshiva, and all efforts to make contact with his family for financial support proved fruitless. The teenager found himself in an unlikely, and apparently non-sexual, relationship with a local prostitute who had taken a shine to him - a classic ‘tart with a heart’ scenario. Despite her kind fussing Farbarovitsh found himself in with the wrong crowd and, seduced by the prospect of easy riches, quickly fell in with a group of local thieves. Small time villainy wasn’t enough for Farbarovitsh, however, and in the tradition of all wannabes he found himself moving to the capital, Warsaw. It’s here he climbed the ladder from bit part pick-pocket to armed robber, assuming the Yiddish gang name 'Urke Nachalnik' – something not unlike ‘Crafty Master Thief' - by which he would from then on be known.

Prison was a vocational hazard, though in 1927 it appears he enjoyed something of an epiphany. Sentenced to eight years inside for his part in a heist, it was while serving his stretch in Warsaw’s Rawitsz Prison that he was inspired by Stanisław Kowalski, a graduate of the teacher’s college close by. Encouraged to set his escapades down on paper he wrote Zyciorys Wlasy Przestpcy (Autobiography of a Criminal) as Urke Nachalnik while inside. The prison governor gave the green light for it to be published in 1933, and was so impressed by Nachalnik's commitment to turning over a new leaf that he was released two years early. The book hit bestseller lists immediately, and was even serialised in Jewish papers in New York. His exposure of the Jewish criminal class won him both plaudits and enemies, and within a year his work had been adapted for the stage. However, on the third night of performance all the props and stage equipment vanished, doubtlessly stolen by those he had fallen out with. A quick word with his underworld contacts saw the gear recovered, and in the best traditions of show biz the show did indeed to go on. His work was apparently largely of mixed quality. Some critics adored Nachalnik's rough street style, while others slammed it for its gratuitous content. Nachalnik was undeterred, and continued to write, most often now in Yiddish.

After pursuing a quiet life in Vilnius he found himself in Otwock, just 15km south of Warsaw, at the outbreak of WWII. It’s here that accounts once again vary. One source says that Nachalnik’s luck ran out in 1939, when he was betrayed to the Nazi authorities after rescuing Torah scrolls from the burning synagogue; along with two accomplices he was forced to dig his own grave and executed in the woods near Otwock. In another account, the gangster author became a prominent member of the Jewish resistance in the capital, coordinating attacks on collaborators, organising smuggling operations in and out of the ghetto, and sabotaging trains to Treblinka back in Otwock; arrested in 1942, he was shot dead in Otwock after attacking his captors and trying to flee their custody. Whatever the case, his grave has never been found. His legend, writing, and even some of the music from his plays, however, live on.
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