A Polish Novel of Jewish Gangsters in Old Warsaw

Jan. 20 2021

Published in Polish in 2017 to much acclaim, and now available in English translation, Szczepan Twardoch’s The King of Warsaw is set in 1937 and has as its protagonist a Jewish gangster-cum-professional boxer. Such a setup—especially given Poland’s continued, tortured relationship with its bygone Jews—could be a recipe for anti-Semitism or, at the very least, the perpetuation of ugly stereotypes. But Eddy Portnoy finds instead an impressive work of literary fiction:

[W]hat are we to make of Twardoch, a non-Jewish Pole who has written a crime novel featuring a volatile Jewish gangster who, among many, many brutal and nefarious acts, slices and dices a fellow Jew? Will there be complaints from the cultural-appropriations department of the Jewish communal trust? Perhaps. Though if Jews are to take their history and literature seriously, then they should be able to accept Jews of all kinds in historical and literary works, from the best to the worst. Moreover, if the product is good, it shouldn’t matter who’s writing.

If anything, Twardoch should be thanked for delving into the lower depths of Jewish gangland because he has made aspects of interwar Jewish Warsaw come brilliantly alive. The last time a Jewish crime story reached the heights of Polish bestseller lists was in 1933, when Urke Nachalnik, the nom de guerre of the yeshiva-boy-turned-gangster Yitzkhok Farberovitsh, published his jailhouse memoir. The book was so popular it won him early release from prison.

These are details [in the book] only a historian would notice, but Twardoch’s research has paid off. He manages to create a truly believable simulacrum of interwar Warsaw, its streets, its clattering markets, its whorehouses, its upscale restaurants, and its denizens—Jews and Poles of all persuasions—all of which sucks the reader into an atmosphere in which Jewish and Polish Warsaw abutted one another, were intertwined, and yet were also completely separate. He doesn’t shy away from depicting harsh Polish anti-Semitism but does avoid the tangled thicket of religious culture because this story is one of secular Jews, though they are certainly not entirely denuded of tradition.

Moreover, Twardoch is completely dedicated to his characters. He is never done with exploring their personalities—at least not until he kills them off.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Crime, Polish Jewry


How the U.S. Is Financing Bashar al-Assad

Due to a long history of supporting terrorism and having waged a brutal and devastating war on its own people, the Syrian regime is subject to numerous U.S. sanctions. But that doesn’t stop American tax dollars from going to President Bashar al-Assad and his cronies, via the United Nations. David Adesnik explains:

UN agencies have spent $95.5 million over the past eight years to house their staff at the Four Seasons Damascus, including $14.2 million last year. New Yorkers know good hotel rooms don’t come cheap, but the real problem in Damascus is that the Four Seasons’ owners are the Assad regime itself and one of the war profiteers who manages the regime’s finances.

The hotel would likely go under if not for UN business; Damascus is not a tourist destination these days. The UN claims keeping its staff at the Four Seasons is about keeping them safe. Yet there has been little fighting in Damascus since 2017. A former UN diplomat with experience in the Syrian capital told me the regime tells UN agencies it can only guarantee the safety of their staff if they stay at the Four Seasons.

What makes the Four Seasons debacle especially galling is that it’s been public knowledge for seven years, and the UN has done nothing about it—or the many other ways the regime siphons off aid for its own benefit. One of the most lucrative is manipulating exchange rates. . . . One of Washington’s top experts on humanitarian aid crunched the numbers and concluded the UN lost $100 million over eighteen months to this kind of rate-fixing.

What the United States and its allies should do is make clear to the UN they will turn off the spigot if the body doesn’t get its act together.

Read more at New York Post

More about: Bashar al-Assad, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, United Nations