Historical Department
1930s-era Jewish gangster

"It was with some astonishment that I discovered what an integral part of American Jewish life crime was. Our forefathers made names for themselves, such as they are, as gangsters, murderers, musclemen, hit men, acid throwers, arm breakers, bombers and all the other professions open to nice Jewish boys. Prostitution, vice, alcohol, gambling, racketeering, extortion, and all the other things that fill the newspaper today and that I gladly have been attributing as character flaws in other groups of founding fathers: Those were our things ... I was shocked at how deep our roots are in all the sinks of depravity and corruption ... The Jews were the first ones to realize the link between organized crime and organized politics. They led the way in corrupting the police and city hall. They first realized the value of gang/syndicate cartels in business to reduce the killing of each other. They were monopolists of the highest order ... We wrote the book, so to speak, on crime, but it's all forgotten."
Marvin Kitman,
(Jewish) Forward,
10-14-94, p. 9)

"The first major American drug dealer was probably Arnold Rothstein ... In the mid-nineteenth century when the government started to ban certain narcotics, drugs were smuggled in from Europe and the Far East. But it was a slapdash affair -- not a business. Rothstein changed all that. He saw Repeal coming and knew drugs could fill the void left by alcohol .... So in the late [19] twenties Rothstein retooled a mechanism he had built to carry booze. It would now carry, among other things, heroin and cocaine ... [It] became a blueprint for smuggling drugs into America." Rich Cohen,
Tough Jews. Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams, 1999, p. 131-132

      "By 1926, [Rothstein] was allegedly the overlord of the foreign narcotics trade in America. Beginning with Rothstein, American Jewish underworld figures became prominently involved in smuggling and opium and opiates in the United States. During the 1920s and 1930s Jews competed with Italians for dominance of the trade. The Italian-Americans' racketeering predominated during World War II. This was because of the Nazis. When the Germans began to exterminate European Jewry, they also destroyed the Jewish criminals who supplied American distributors."
Robert Rockaway,
But -- He Was Good to His Mother. The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters, Jerusalem, 1993, p. 8

"Despite all their depravity, members of the Jewish robber bands [in Europe] lived as Jews and generally adhered to traditional Jewish lifestyles and customs. As a rule, they did not undertake any expedition on the Sabbath [Saturday] and kept the dietary laws."
Mordechai Breuer,
in MAYER, p. 249

"Jewish bandits [in Europe over the centuries] stole almost exclusively from Christians. No breaking into houses of Court Jews or representatives of the Jewish community or synagogues (in contrast to the many burglarized churches) were reported."
Otto Ulbrichtl,
p. 62

"[There was] picking pockets, the theft of textiles and gold or
silver, and church robbery with its concomitant violence against priests and
clergy. None of these was the exclusive domain of Jews, who
were involved in various other subcategories of theft and burglary as
well, but in these particular offences Jews were especially
especially prominent ... Some Jewish groups
specialized in church robbery ... From 1680 to 1795 the robbery of
churches and priests and clergy was the nearly
exclusive domain of Jews ... Jews robbed
not only Roman Catholic priests but Protestant ones too. It
looks rather as if most Christian thieves stayed away from all churches,

while Jewish thieves selected churches for
more reasons that just convenience."
Florike Egmond,
Underworld. Organized Crime in the Netherlands, 1650-1800, Polity Press, Cambridge, MA, p. 108-110]

"The Napoleon of Crime is the first biography of Adam Worth, the most famous criminal in the Victorian Age and the model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's insidiously brilliant Professor Moriarty. An American-born German Jew who rose through the ranks of New York's Jewish underworld, Adam Worth amassed millions and built a criminal network that reached from New York to London, Paris, and South Africa."
[from the dustjacket of The Napoleon of Crime. The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief, by Ben Macintyre, Farrar/Straus/Girous, New York, 1997

"In 1908, Jews were 25 percent of the four million residents in New York City but 50% of the prison population."
Marilyn Henry,
Can't We Buy the Wall?,
Jerusalem Post,
October 4, 2001

"During Prohibition (1920-1933), Jewish gangsters became major operatives in the American underworld and played prominent roles in the creation of organized crime in the United States. At the time, Jewish gangs dominated illicit activiites in a number of America's largest cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. The gang dealt in bootlegging, gambling, extortion, drugs, and murder, and developed a reputation for being more ruthless than Al Capone's mob in Chicago. The Purple's decade-long reign of terror ended when most of the gang's members either went to prison or were murdered by rivals."
Robert Rockaway,
 The Notorious Purple Gang: Detroit's All-Jewish Prohibition Era Mob, Shofar, 10-31-01,
p. 113-

Jewish Gangsters, Jewish Virtual Library
"There are few excuses for the behavior of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s. The best known Jewish gangsters – Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Longy Zwillman, Moe Dalitz — were involved in the numbers rackets, illegal drug dealing, prostitution, gambling and loan sharking. They were not nice men. During the rise of American Nazism in the 1930s and when Israel was being founded between 1945 and 1948, however, they proved staunch defenders of the Jewish people ... Jewish gangsters also helped establish Israel after the war. One famous example is a meeting between Bugsy Siegel and Reuven Dafne, a Haganah emissary, in 1945. Dafne was seeking funds and guns to help liberate Palestine from British rule. A mutual friend arranged for the two men to meet. 'You mean to tell me Jews are fighting?' Siegel asked. 'You mean fighting as in killing?' Dafne answered in the affirmative. Siegel replied, 'I’m with you.' For weeks, Dafne received suitcases filled with $5 and $10 bills -- $50,000 in all -- from Siegel."

J. P. Morgan of the Underworld
. American Jewish Historical Society.
"Historians speculate that Jews comprised half of the nation’s leading bootleggers and that Jewish gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel dominated organized crime certain cities. Of course, with the largest Jewish population, New York produced the largest number of Jewish gangsters. The kingpin of the New York Jewish underworld was not a street tough gangster, but a refined gambler: Arnold Rothstein. According to Rockaway, 'Rothstein is recognized as the pioneer big businessman of organized crime in the United States' ... Rothstein was born with a business pedigree. His father, wealthy businessman Abraham Rothstein, was dubbed by New York governor Al Smith 'Abe the Just.' A pious man with a reputation for philanthropy and honesty, Abraham Rothstein served as chairman of the board of New York’s Beth Israel Hospital. His older son became a rabbi ... Historian [Robert] Rockaway reports, 'Out of respect for the older Rothstein, Arnold received an Orthodox Jewish funeral with the renowned Orthodox rabbi, Leo Jung, delivering the eulogy.'"

The Purple Gang, [History],
"In the 1920s, Detroit belonged to the Purple Gang, a group of killers and thugs as vicious and bloodthirsty as any racketeer in New York or Chicago. The Purples ran the rackets in Detroit for much of the 1920s and early 30s until the Syndicate boys from back east moved in and wrested control from a gang that had seen its numbers decimated by infighting and prosecution ... In the beginning, the "gangsters" were nothing more than the sons of Russian Jewish immigrants who had come to the New Country in search of a better life ... The boys, led by the four Bernstein brothers – Abe, Joe, Raymond and Izzy, were shakedown artists and jewel thieves, but thanks to Prohibition and the convenient location of Detroit, the young delinquents quickly graduated from nuisance types of street crime to armed robbery, hijacking, extortion, and other strong arm work. They became notorious for their high profile manner of operation and their savagery in dealing with enemies."

Meyer Lansky: Mastermind of the Mob
, [History],
"If there ever was a golden age of organized crime, it could be argued that it began with Lansky's descent into the underworld when he placed his first bet on a street corner craps game before the start of World War I and ended when he died in the winter of 1983. Arnold Rothstein, the supposed fixer the 1919 World Series, was the Cronus of American organized crime -- the proto-godfather, if you will. Charlie Luciano stirred up the action, Benny Siegel provided the chutzpa, Lepke Buchalter terrorized the enemy but Lansky rose above the fray and served as the brains of the outfit. Luciano was exiled and died relatively young, Siegel and Rothstein were assassinated and Lepke died in Sing Sing's electric chair, but Meyer Lansky died a wealthy old man in Miami, Florida, where he was known as a supporter of Israel and a frequent contributor to the local public television station."

The Development of Organized Crime and the World of Meyer Lansky/Lansky's Inner Circle. [History] Eastern Kentucky University/Department of Criminal Justice and Police Studies
A detailed examination of the world of Syndicate godfather Meyer Lansky, including the Jewish mob's influence in the creation of Las Vegas. With few exceptions, the many characters noted here in Lansky's criminal underworld are Jewish.

Mobtown Confidential. Baltimore Magazine, 2000
"Julius 'The Lord' Salsbury ... was a [Baltimore] Block kingpin who was hunted down by the Feds ... Salsbury ... was never caught. After appealing in a gambling conviction, he jumped bail and fled the country in 1970, eluding capture ever since. Legend has it that he went to Israel to enjoy the protections afforded Jewish-American criminals under the 1965 U.S.-Israeli extradition treaty ... Julius Salsbury became Mobtown's outlaw hero ... By the early 1950s, the lowdown on the Block was attracting out-of-town press. In Washington Confidential, the bestselling pulp expose from 1951, Baltimore's red-light strip was described as 'one of the most vicious and lawless areas in the world' by muckraking authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. 'At this writing,' they concluded, 'any and all forms of vice are tolerated and protected. There is a price for everything and it's not much.'"

Murder with a Blunt Instrument: Ronald Cohen
, 1970. African Crime
"A murder trial which attracted immense public interest, both at home and overseas, was that of millionaire Ronald Vivien Cohen, who battered his wife to death at their fashionable [South Africa] Constantia home on the evening of 5 April, 1970. The motive for the killing was never established. Ronald Cohen and Susan Johnson were married on 26 February, 1963. He was thirty-four, a rich and successful businessman, and she was eighteen. It was his second marriage, his first having ended in divorce five years earlier. In 1967, Cohen bought two acres of land on 'millionaire's row'- Monterey Drive, Southern Cross, Constantia - for R12 000. The magnificent Spanish Moorish-type house he had built there was named Southcape ... On 18 September, Ronald Cohen was found guilty of murdering his wife."

The Leopold and Loeb Case of 1924. Jazz Age Chicago
This site is an archive of material about the famous murder trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two Jewish wealthy Chicago teenagers. As psychiatrist David Abrahamsen notes: "[Leopold and Loeb] kidnaped fourteen-year old Bobby Franks, and Loeb beat him to death. They stripped the body from the waist down, and although the evidence is inconclusive, one or both of them probably peformed a sexual act on it ... In the perspective of all that happened since the 1920s, the murder of Bobby Franks hardly qualifies as the crime of the century, as it was seen then. But at that time the brutality and senselessness of the act exploded like a bomb in the public consciousness. People began to realize that society was changing in some frightening way. The youth of the two murderers (this was the beginning of the tidal wave that came to be called juvenile delinquency), the sexual undercurrent of their crime and the fact that theirs was the first major trial to use the testimony of psychiatrists on the background and state of mind of a defendant made an indelible impression on the millions who followed the sensational case in the newspapers." [ABRAHAMSEN, D., 1983, p. 41-42]

Did Gay Affair Provide a Catalyst for Kristallnacht?
[United Kingdom], October 31, 2001
"The assassination of a top German diplomat which triggered Kristallnacht, the organised Nazi pogrom against Jews across Germany, was not politically-motivated, as commonly believed, but the result of a homosexual love affair between a Nazi diplomat and a young Jewish man, according to a leading expert on the Third Reich. Hans-Jürgen Döscher, considered Germany's foremost authority on the events of November 9 1938 following the publication last year of his definitive history, Reichskristallnacht, has gathered scores of documents and eyewitness accounts, including the diaries of the French writer André Gide, to support the theory. On November 7 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a Jew, walked into the German embassy in Paris and shot Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat, five times. Vom Rath died two days later. Nazi propagandists condemned the shooting as a terrorist attack to further the cause of the Jewish 'world revolution,' and the pogrom was launched ... Prof Döscher gleaned his previously unpublished evidence from court archives, reports from the propaganda ministry, letters, diary extracts, and interviews with diplomats of the time. Most startling are the diaries of Gide, in which the writer expresses his amazement that the scandal failed to gain public attention. Vom Rath, Gide wrote, 'had an exceptionally intimate relationship with the little Jew, his murderer.'"

[Commentary at a discussion forum by Stan Nadel], June 18, 1998,
Mendele. Yiddish Literature and Language
[Nadel is a professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University]
"It seems that [the Yiddish word] gonef (sometimes gonnoff, hence the false etemolgy) entered American and English slang via what is known as thieves cant. One of the traditional occupations for Jews in Europe and America was as pawnbrokers. That is an occupation which tends to bridge the border between the criminal and business worlds. At the margin, the line between pawnbroker and fence (handler of stolen goods) is often obscured and some Jews played an important role in the criminalized underground economy of large cities. To provide a concrete example from my own research, I'll offer up the notorious Fredrika "Marm" Mandelbaum of New York--who was alleged to have gone from fence to crime boss and veritble female Morriarity in the third quarter of the 19th century (see George W. Walling's "Recollections of a New York Chief of Police" -- which has a thieves slang appendix which, as I remember, included the term gonef defined as a pickpocket. Herbert Asbury later defined 'gonnoff' as 'a thief who has attained the higher walks of his profession'). I had assumed it moved into American English from German Jewish immigrants in New York (like Mrs. Mandelbaum) until I learned it was also present in 18th century London's thieves cant. Then I was told by a specialist on the 18th century London underworld that Jewish fences played a key role in linking the London underworld with markets in Amsterdam (he says they claimed they could fence anything, including the crown jewels), and that this is the source of Yiddish loan words in English thieves cant. So we have two possible sources for the American usage-- Anglo-American thieves cant via London and German-American thieves cant directly from the Yiddish."

I Am Salve the Thief, Tra-La-La. Songs of the E. European Jewish Underworld, Jewish Heritage Online Magazine, October 2001
"The two large cities of Warsaw and Odessa 'boasted' of a strong Jewish underworld which lived by its own laws, and the songs in this category are varied and vivid, revealing the sentiments of the criminal world in the Pale (area of Czarist Russia where Jews were permitted to live) ... Children born into this environment became hardened criminals. Others who slipped into it, at times cherished fond memories of a once secure home, loving parents, and a life regulated by the spiritual atmosphere of the Jewish Sabbath, the festivals anholidays, the year-round customs and traditional Jewish way of life ... There was fanatic devotion to each other as they faced the hostile, respectable world about, whose laws they were flagrantly defying ... Their 'professions' were varied, with some of them socialized: there were those that 'covered' travelers' luggage in transit on trains; other who hijacked boxes and crates of merchandise from moving vehicles; those who broke into unlocked houses, which called for the speediest kind of operation; and those who entered second-story homes and were adept at jumping from upper-story windows if necessary. There were pickpockets who worked as a team, with one distracting the selected the selected victim while the other 'did the job.' There were safecrackers and 'diamond' window-cutters, who covered jewelry establishments."

[19th Century Yiddish Song from the Eastern European Jewish Criminal Underworld], Jewish Heritage Online Magazine, October 2001 [click on "Song 4"]
"I am Salve, the thief,
Four brothers are we;
One is hungry, the other well fed,
But thieves all four are we.
One is a pickpocket,
The second-a pimp, a handsome fellow;
One is hijacker on the lookout for packages,
And I am a house thief.
A pimp is common,
As all agree: From his own wife,
He gets the disease
To be a hijacker is bitter:
You can rupture your lung,
It's hard to earn something with some of the packages,
The best thing is to be a house thief."

A Biography of Jack Ruby, The JFK Assassination Home Page
A biography of Jack Ruby [born Jacob Rubenstein] -- the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald (the assassin of President John F. Kennedy].

Legend of the Sassoons, China Daily (Shanghai Star)
"Of all the Jewish families that had prospered in Shanghai, the Sassoons were probably the most famous. They once owned the Cathay Hotel, today's Peace Hotel, which stands prominent on the Bund as a monument to Shanghai's past. Jacob Sassoon, the Jewish millionaire Victor Sassoon, nicknamed Lame Sassoon. The legend of the Jewish clan can be traced back to David Sassoon (1792-1864). Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Baghdad, Iraq, David Sassoon set up the Sassoon company in Bombay, India, in 1833. In 1844, he set up a branch in Hong Kong, and a year later, he set up his Shanghai branch on the Bund to cash in on the opium trade. At that time, about one-fifth of all opium brought into China was shipped on the Sassoon fleet. They brought China opium and British textile and took away silk, tea and silver. Very soon the Sassoons became the wealthiest family in India. Many more Sephardic Jewish people came to Shanghai seeking the same kind of business success."

'The Wizard of Odds': Double Dribbling',
New York Times, March 2, 2002
"The Wizard of Odds. How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball. By Charley Rosen. 428 pp. New York: Seven Stories Press. Molinas, who had had a Jewish middle-class upbringing in the Bronx, was a sort of double prodigy in his own right. He took up both gambling and basketball in 1944, when he was 12 years old, and by the time he was starring for Stuyvesant High School and then Columbia University, he was working with a mob-backed bookmaker -- betting against his own team, at times throwing games outright, at other times playing hard enough to win but intentionally bungling shots and dropping passes in order to stay under the point spread. ''To Molinas, playing in a rigged ball game was more exhilarating than playing it straight,'' Charley Rosen writes in ''The Wizard of Odds.'' ''Was it time to kick a pass out of bounds, or get called for a three-second violation? Or should he go on a scoring binge to make his own statistics respectable? . . . Molinas loved the idea of playing so many secret games at the same time.'' Standing 6-foot-6, with a superb one-handed push shot from the perimeter (the jumper hadn't yet come into its own) and a hook shot that made him deadly near the basket, Molinas was, briefly, one of the premier high-scoring forwards in the fledgling N.B.A., before he was suspended for gambling during his first and only season with the Fort Wayne Pistons."

Jewish Gangs and Organized Crime,
Organized Crime

Frank Sinatra and the Mob,
Crime Magazine,
"Frank Sinatra was physically a small man. At his local draft board physical in 1943, the 5’71/2"-teen idol weighed in at 119 pounds. (He flunked the physical due to a perforated left eardrum.) Sinatra idolized the strong and the tough. Since boyhood he always wanted to be around the strongest and the toughest men he could find. This led to his strong attraction to both boxers and gangsters. One FBI informant said it was well known that Sinatra had a 'hoodlum complex'. According to Eddie Fisher, Sinatra once said, 'I would rather be a Mafia don than president of the United States.' According to Jo-Carroll Silvers, wife of comedian Phil Silvers (a good friend of Sinatra’s), 'Phil and Frank adored Bugsy (Ben) Siegel…They were like two children seeing Santa Claus…They were so wide-eyed and impressed with this man…They would brag about Bugsy, what he had done and how many people he had killed… I will always remember the awe Frank had in his voice when he spoke about him (Siegel). He wanted to emulate Bugsy.' Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel was the representative of Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano in Los Angeles from 1934 until his death in 1947. He was known as one of the original members of the legendary, and some say fictional, Murder Inc. Siegel was also one of organized crime’s pioneers in Las Vegas, building the Flamingo Hotel which opened on Christmas Eve 1946. Sinatra and Siegel had a nodding acquaintance, but there is no evidence that there was anything more than that. Mickey Cohen The relationship between Sinatra and Mickey Cohen is well documented. Cohen was a Siegel lieutenant who made himself an underworld power after Siegel’s death. Cohen, a Jew, was never a 'made guy' (a member of La Cosa Nostra), and he had constant battles with Jack Dragna, the official Mafia boss of Los Angeles, but he remained a powerful crime figure all through the 1950s and well into the 60s. Cohen and Sinatra were fairly close friends. Sinatra visited him at his home in 1948, even though Cohen warned him that he was under constant surveillance, to ask him to have Johnny Stompanato, Cohen’s bodyguard, stay away from Ava Gardner. Cohen told him that he never mixed in between men and their 'broads' and that Sinatra should go back to his wife and kids. 'I talked to him like a friend,' Cohen stated later in his autobiography. Cohen, like the other mobsters who knew Sinatra, used him for his star power. On at least one occasion Cohen called Sinatra and asked him to meet with a business associate from Ohio and his 14-year-old daughter. Sinatra didn’t rush over to Cohen’s house, as Cohen wanted, but he did invite them to a radio broadcast where all three were allowed to sit on the stage."

A story lacking a moral compass,
Star Ledger (New Jersey), October 1, 2003
"Nothing is simple in Newark. Not even its history. Especially not its history, as illustrated by Warren Grover, a retired businessman from West Orange who has written a book with the intriguing title "Nazis in Newark." The title is catchy but a bit misleading. The book is mostly about Abner "Longie" Zwillman, the gangster who reconstituted his goons into a group with the unlikely name "the Minutemen" to beat up Nazis (and some German-Americans who may not have been Nazis) in Newark, Irvington and elsewhere in New Jersey in the 1930s. They did this when they were not extorting Jewish business owners for "insurance" payments. Or harassing pro-union speakers on behalf of Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague -- because Zwillman and Hague had a business relationship of sorts. Grover, trained as a historian at New York University, did extraordinary research ... Grover is not innocent about Zwillman. He calls him "the dominant crime boss in the city ... involved in gambling, the protection racket, and labor union extortion." Zwillman's Third Ward Gang included men like Hymie "The Weasel" Kugel, Julius "Skinny" Markowitz. The Minutemen's "commander," an ex-pug named Sidney Abramowitz who used the nom de gang of Nat Arno, "worked for Zwillman transporting bootleg alcohol and as an enforcer in Zwillman's other criminal dealings" ... Grover takes obvious glee recounting how these thugs broke up meetings of German-American organizations, followed suspected Nazi sympathizers home and beat them with baseball bats in dark street corners. In hindsight, the attitude is understandable, if simplistic. Given what we know now, how could anyone defend Nazis? Shouldn't we all cheer any Nazi-haters, even murderous goons who preyed on fellow Jews? But the first riot orchestrated by the Minutemen was in 1934 -- he gives the date of "Sept. 31" (sic) -- only months after Hitler was elected German chancellor. Grover attributes prescience to thugs. They were poor, rough men, he says, who "recognized hatred and evil more quickly than most and their response was violence." If he sees a moral dilemma, he devotes no space to it in his book. Aren't thugs still thugs -- even if they're sometimes thugs in a good cause? Should we forgive extortionists if some money pried from legitimate businesses is used to extirpate evil? Grover admits Newark's Jewish residents were not molested by the city's then large German (and Italian) population. "The Jews attacked the Nazis," he says. "The Nazis didn't attack the Jews." But, of course, he attributes this to the fear engendered by Zwillman's gang. He says that if the Minutemen had not been active, Newark Jews would have been in danger. Maybe. It's unknowable."

[Jewish Thieving, as part of mass culture, case 434,598. JTR Contributor's note: "I quote from the latest edition of WIRED magazine, page 102, March 2004 edition":]
The Hollywood film industry was built by fleeing pirates. Creators and directors migrated from the East Coast to California in the early 20th century in part to escape controls that film patents granted the inventor Thomas Edison. These controls were exercised through the Motion Pictures Patents Company, a monopoly “trust” based on Edison’s creative property and formed to vigorously protect his patent rights. California was remote enough from Edison’s reach that filmmakers like Fox and Paramount could move there and, without fear of the law, pirate his inventions. Hollywood grew quickly, and enforcement of the federal law eventually spread west. But because patents granted their holders a truly “limited” monopoly of just 17 years (at that time), the patents had expired by the time enough federal marshals appeared. A new industry had been founded, in part from Edison’s creative property.”

[Real Jewish history laid bare. More "Nazi" screed from Israel's Haaretz newspaper. When a Jew squealed to non-Jews about what was going on in the Jewish community in Eastern Europe, Jews contracted to kill him and that, we learn, was institutionalized. Jews and crime syndicates have been synonymous in many places throughout the world, including today's "Russian mafia." Today it has morphed into the world apartheid movement of Zionism. Why is there "anti-Semitism?" What is it? Where does it come from? Tell it true: "anti-Semitism" has always been the reaction to widespread Jewish corruption, exploitation, racism, and tribalism. Here's the 56 millionth piece of evidence. Sweet Jewish innocents of endemic persecution through history? Think again. Look and ye shall see.]
World of our (god)fathers,
By Kobi Ben-Simhon, Haaretz (Israel), October 28, 2004
"Dr. Mordechai Zalkin, senior lecturer in the Department of the History of the Jewish People at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, is sitting opposite shelves crammed with books. On the top shelf is a hefty collection of vodka bottles that he has brought back from his travels, during which he looked for documentary material on Jewish criminal organizations in Eastern Europe. His studies indicate that until World War II, the underworld in Warsaw, Vilna, Odessa and other large cities was controlled largely by Jewish syndicates. By "our" people ... The mystery surrounding the identity of "harodef hane'alam" (literally, the "pursuer who disappeared") remains intact. The so-called "pursuer" belonged to the realm of institutionalized crimes that were perpetrated in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe 150 years ago. His identity was one of the communities' best-kept secrets. His task: to hire mercenary killers to operate against people who threatened the community. He was chosen from within a small leadership group and only the group's members knew his identity. The local leadership entrusted him with responsibility for the community's internal security. This man left behind a great many traces and thereby became an intriguing Jewish legend. "Every community of the time had its informers," Dr. Zalkin says. "It was a profession - just as there was a rabbi and a shoemaker, there was also an informer. As long as the informing concerned only `small' matters, everything proceeded smoothly - the informer earned his pay and nothing happened. The problem arose when the informers gave the authorities information that was liable to harm the integrity of the community concretely." This was why the communities established a security apparatus headed by an official anonymous "pursuer." There is very little documentation on the subject, Zalkin notes: "The Slonim community in White Russia inserted regulations concerning the `pursuer who disappeared' into their charter. The man's position is also mentioned in the ledger of the Minsk community. In 1836 the body of a Jew was found in the river next to the town of Oshitz, in the Ukraine. The investigation turned up the fact that his name was Yitzhak Oxman. He was an informer, usually passing on information about Jews who evaded military service or tax payments. Some people in the community decided that Oxman had gone too far and that he, along with another Jew, Shmuel Schwartzman, had to be liquidated. The police investigation got nowhere. No one in the community revealed who gave the order to murder the two Jews, but the person responsible was probably the unknown `pursuer.'" In another case, a member of the Jewish community broke under police interrogation, revealing the existence of the secret apparatus. Hirsch Ben Wolf, whose father was a well-known rabbi in Vilna, left home and converted to Christianity. The view was that a convert was liable to endanger the community he sprang from, so it was decided to kidnap Ben Wolf ... While the "pursuer" remained in the shadows, Jewish underworld figures roamed the streets without fear. Everyone knew them, they even entered Jewish literature. In his work, "In the Vale of Tears," Mendele Mocher Sforim (penname of Shalom Jacob Abramovitsch, 1835 - 1917) provides an exceptional description of one type of Jewish criminal organization, cruel and dark. In the novel Jewish mobsters use underhanded methods to kidnap Jewish girls from poor, remote towns and then force them to work as prostitutes. This was a fairly common phenomenon. The Jewish society described here by Mendele is perverted and rotten ... Dr. Zalkin is familiar with the phenomenon. He pulls a book by an American researcher from one of the shelves. The entire volume is about Jewish organizations that rounded up Jewish girls and sold them into prostitution. Zalkin says he can map the network of Jewish brothels in 19th-century Eastern Europe, but immediately reneges. "That plum I won't give you," he says with pleasure. Rubles and jewelry One of the major episodes in which a Jewish criminal organization was involved occurred in Vilna in February 1923. It received unusual coverage in the local Yiddish paper. For four consecutive days the paper's lead stories dealt with the events. A Jewish gang that called itself the "Gold Flag" kidnapped a boy from a wealthy family for ransom. According to the police, the man behind the kidnapping, Berl Kravitz, had belonged to the Capone gang in the United States a few years earlier. Zelig Levinson, the head of Gold Flag, gave the green light for the operation to proceed despite objections by some of the gang's members. The kidnap victim was Yossele Leibovitch, a student in the Hebrew Gymnasium in Vilna. His father was a money lender. The kidnapping was done by Abba Vitkin and his assistant Reuven Kantor. The two grabbed Yossele as he left school, bundling him into a peasant cart. The ransom note sent to the family declared: "Money or death." The kidnappers demanded 15,000 rubles plus gold, diamonds and pearls in return for the boy ... The rival organization to Gold Flag was the "Brothers Society," the federation of the Jewish thieves in Vilna - they even had a secretary who represented the society vis-a-vis the community's institutions. One of the society's missions was to provide legal assistance to members that were arrested and placed on trial, and to smuggle people who were wanted by the police out of the city. The Brothers Society was known for the original names its members were given - such as "Yankele the Pipe," "Avraham the Anarchist," "Tall Elinke" and "Arka Moneybags." "The thieves and criminals were part of the local folklore, part of the daily reality. The Jewish underworld was also reflected in song, in literature and in the press," Zalkin says as he takes out a book of old folk songs and recites one of them. "There is music for it, too," he says. "Here, this song tells about someone whose mother is a thief and whose father is a thief, whose sister does what she does and whose brother is a smuggler." Looking up from the page, Zalkin explains that historians ascribe great importance to folk songs. "They spring from the actual situation, they are very authentic, a very important way to express social feelings." A report dated February 1905 from the Hebrew paper Hazman ("The Time"), which was published in Vilna, sheds light on one of the sophisticated methods of operation of the Jewish criminals. They seem to have had no shame. According to the item, Gershon Sirota, one of the world's leading cantors, was robbed. "They did steal clothing and other items," the paper states, adding that the thieves let it be known to the cantor that they were ready to return the property, on one condition: "That he pay them a ransom of 25 rubles in cash and pray in the synagogue twice out of turn ... Because the prayer leader has been stingy with prayers and thus their profits were reduced and they couldn't make money." Zalkin explains: "They wanted something very precise from him. The thieves asked Sirota to give cantorial concerts in midweek, because on Shabbat people didn't bring their wallets with them to the synagogue, and the thieves needed a crowd with wallets and purses. The two concerts in fact took place, the pickpockets had plenty of work and the cantor's property was returned to him." School for thieves Vilna was not an exceptional hothouse of crime. Organizations like Gold Flag and the Brothers Society operated also in Warsaw, Odessa, Bialystok and Lvov ... The biggest gangster in Odessa, a huge city, was none other than Benya Krik" - the same one from the title of the book by the Soviet-Jewish author Isaac Babel: "Benya Krik, The Gangster, and Other Stories." Jews could be found at almost all levels of underworld activity, from the individual thief to gangs that numbered more than 100 members. The large organizations operated in the cities, which they divided into sectors among themselves. Each organization had a charter, a clear hierarchy and internal courts, and its work was divided according to different areas, such as theft, protection money, prostitution, pickpocketing and murder. The art of crime was treated seriously, as it was a major source of livelihood for many people. Between the world wars the idea was even raised of establishing a school for thieves in Vilna. It's not known if the idea was put into practice. In 19th-century Russia the best place to rob people was on the roads. There weren't enough policemen and there were a great many forests. The convoys that traveled the roads were easy pickings. Saul Ginzburg, one of the important historians of Russian Jewry, describes groups of Jewish thieves, whom he calls "toughs and predators." After the heist the thieves slipped away into the woods. A typical gang of roadside robbers numbered between 10 and 15 men, who provided for themselves and their families by means of their booty. One of the most famous roadmen, Dan Barzilai, a Jew by all accounts, who ran a well-known gang of thieves in the Warsaw area, was captured in 1874. His gang had 27 members, 14 of them Jews. They descended upon estates around Warsaw and attacked merchants' coaches on the roads, making off with furs, jewelry and horses. A Polish researcher found statements made by the accused men after their arrest, as preserved in the files of the police ... Mordechai Zalkin has spent much of the past 13 years burrowing in Eastern European archives. They are his laboratory, the place where he looks for the remote margins of Jewish history and brings them to life in his academic work. "When I work in an archive in Eastern Europe, and it doesn't matter whether it's in St. Petersburg or Moscow, one of the things that interests me is the collection of police files," he says. "What used to be classified intelligence files are now open. The police collected information as part of their work, and when I open the files, from 150 years ago, I find detailed reports about Jewish criminals. The archives have enough material for 100 historians and for 100 years, and even then they won't finish."
Zalkin is respectful of every document he finds. "This, for example, is a document from 1820, from the archives in Lithuania," he says, holding it up. It's a leaflet, in Yiddish and Polish, published by the rabbinical and political leaderships of one of the Jewish communities, threatening a boycott of anyone who engages in smuggling or gives shelter to smugglers. "At that time the Jews smuggled everything that moved and in some places the Russian authorities pressured the leaders to take action before they intervened," Zalkin relates. "A leaflet like this shows that smuggling was a concrete social phenomenon that characterized the Jewish community, not a marginal issue' ... The Haganah connection The Jewish mobsters in the United States are far more widely known than those of Eastern Europe and have been the subjects of quite a few films and books. The gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky have become legendary figures. Ten years ago Prof. Robert Rockaway, from the department of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, published the first important study of these criminal organizations (in English: "But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters," Gefen Publishing House, paperback edition, 2000). According to Rockaway's findings, the vast majority of the Jewish criminals in America were from Eastern Europe or the sons of immigrants from there. They did not continue a tradition of crime, but created a home-grown tradition in their new homeland. Generally, the reason for their criminal activity was not to obtain bread, but butter. Most of the Jewish criminals in the U.S. were from working-class families and grasped at a very early age that hard work was not a recipe for economic advancement. They didn't have capital to invest, and the underworld offered a way to get rich quick. Jews were among the biggest criminals in the U.S. at the beginning of the last century. "In terms of crime they did everything," Rockaway says. "Drugs, murder, smuggling alcohol. They had no limits. A Jew, Arnold Rothstein, was the head of the New York underworld in the 1920s. He created the largest gambling empire the U.S. have ever seen until then. He controlled most of the gangs in New York, including drugs and liquor. Rothstein was the first entrepreneur in the U.S. who created a well-oiled organization to smuggle liquor during Prohibition." Another Jew, Abner Zwillman, ruled the crime syndicate in New Jersey for 30 years from his Newark base. As a boy he acquired the nickname "Der Langer," "the Tall One" in Yiddish, or "Longy" in the Jersey version. Together with another Jew, Joseph Reinfeld, he ran the largest and most profitable contraband organization in the U.S. The two imported about 40 percent of the alcohol that entered the country during the Prohibition era. U.S. Treasury officials stated that between 1926 and 1933 Zwillman took in more than $40 million from his smuggling operation (more than half-a-billion dollars in today's terms). He translated his vast economic clout into political power. In the 1940s, the mayor of Newark, three of his deputies and four city councilmen needed his approval to get the nod for their posts. Jewish-American gangsters also helped in the struggle for Israel's creation during the 1940s. In his book, Rockaway describes how an emissary of the pre-state Haganah defense organization (the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces) approached Meyer Lansky, one of the major players in the crime scene in America, and with his intervention, shipments of weapons and military equipment were smuggled out of New York harbor, bound for Palestine. Lansky wasn't the only one. According to Rockaway, other Jews from the underworld donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Haganah. Shmuel Isser's bunker Members of the Jewish underworld are absent from the well-known narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, but were involved in the day-to-day life of the ghetto, and their connection to the Jewish underground groups during the uprising is a fascinating episode. The Nazi Aktion to liquidate the ghetto was launched on the eve of Passover, 1943. When the Nazis encountered resistance they used flamethrowers to set fire systematically to building after building in the ghetto. On May 8 they uncovered the central bunker of the Jewish Fighting Organization, at 18 Mila Street. What is less known is that this symbol of tenacity of the revolt, the fighters' headquarters, where the commander of the uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz, fought until his death, belonged to the Jewish criminal Shmuel Isser ... The professional smugglers - a euphemism for underworld figures - lived a debauched life in the ghetto. They made a great deal of money very quickly and became the social elite. They brought in luxury items such as sweets or other goods that earned them large profits. In the book, Gutman quotes one person's testimony: "The smugglers had enormous revenues ... most of them accumulated millions. The smugglers were the richest class in the ghetto and were glaringly set apart from the gray, meager and hungry Jewish quarter. The easy profits and the uncertainty about tomorrow led the smugglers to spend all their spare time drinking, visiting night clubs and in the company of women." In the end, the admired fighters and the members of the underworld liniked up. Based on their ideological approach, the members of the Jewish Fighting Organization did not build bunkers. Their basic assumption was that they would fight to the end, so no withdrawal or escape routes were planned (the other underground group in the ghetto, the Jewish Military Organization, led by the Revisionists, built a protected, well-equipped bunker with an underground passage out of the ghetto). When the members of the Jewish Fighting Organization found that they could no longer move about and hide aboveground, because of the Germans' flamethrowers, they had no choice but to take cover in underground bunkers. The largest and best equipped of these fortified sites were those of the underworld. According to Havi Ben Sasson, 32, a doctoral student who works at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, the Jewish criminal organizations were part of the Warsaw landscape. In the course of a few hours of archival research and reading of testimonies, she was able to come up with a great deal of information ... False image This is actually a war of images. Dr. Zalkin wants to draw us a different social portrait. "What interests me is the ordinary person," he says. "I am not interested so much in the great rabbis and the philosophers. I am interested in the society, the people. My studies go in that direction. As a social historian, I map and classify the society, and when I came to all the places that have to do with the social history of the Jews in the 19th century and in the period between the world wars, I didn't have to go looking for crime. It was simply there, leaping up everywhere' ..."After the Holocaust," Zalkin says, "there was an inclination to view the Jewish world through a rosier prism. Zionist historiography had a vested interest in drawing a distinction between the `new Jew,' the pioneer-farmer, and the wretched, pale ghetto Jew who studied in the yeshiva and was a moneylender. The image today is that they were all righteous and saintly. But it just wasn't so."