Tarnów tales 1. The Al Capone of Tarnów

This photograph, on which a Hasid from Tarnów proudly struts on his sidecar motorcycle, marks the end of an era for several reasons. First, the date of 1938, the last year of peace, after which nothing will ever be the same as it was. Second, the motorbike, and the clumsy hand that wrote the Latin letters, a hand which was used to another form of writing, from right to left, indicate that the traditional world, the closed world of the shtetls and Hasidic communities in any case, were already on the way to breaking up. And Marek Tomaszewski, the author of Tarnów. Żydowskie krajobrazy (Tarnów: Jewish landscapes, 2012) has also included this photo in the last chapter of the book, which says farewell to this vanished world.

In 2011 the Tarnów postcard and photo collector Marek Tomaszewski had already published a stunning book from the material of his collections: Tarnów: wędrówka w przeszłość z kartą pocztową (Tarnów: a journey into the past on the back of a postcard), from which we will quote later. However, he still had enough material left to compile a separate photo album on the Jews of Tarnów. The city, with its twenty-five thousand strong Jewish population, or 40% of the population, was the fourth largest Jewish town in Galicia, after Lemberg/Lwów, Krakow and Stanisławów (now Ivano-Frankivsk). No wonder then, that after the disappearance of the owners of these albums, one could still collect so many photos, from which the two hundred and fifty pictures illustrating the album were selected. The four photos accompanying the foreword, Tomaszewski mentions, were for example purchased on the German e-bay just a few days before the book’s release.

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The photos are really impressive. Although their photographers are mostly unknown, many of them are worthy counterparts of Menachem Kipnis’, Alter Kacyzne’s or Roman Vishniac’s famous series. This also indicates how many more pictures may still be hiding depicting this world, which only twenty years ago was widely considered to have passed almost without a trace. And the book’s great merit is that, apart from the images, it also helps to revive this world with long texts. The Tarnów Jews that survived the destruction started to record and collect their remembrances in Israel since the late 1940s, and in 1954 they published them in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish; the latter under the title Tarnów. Egzystencja i zagłada żydowskiego miasta (Tarnów: Life and destruction of a Jewish town). These excerpts from the book come from this collection.

Corner of Wesklarska and Żydowska streets, looking towards the Pilzńenska Gate. Photo by K. Fusiarski, 1930s

The excerpts begin with the vivid description of the everyday Jewish life, the typical figures of the squares and streets; the coachmen, the barber, the restaurants, the porters. They present the festivities of the religious Hasids, the misery of the slums, the struggle of the workers for a better life. They report on how the twentieth century settled over the city, the destructive Russian occupation of 1914-1915, the bourgeois life between the two world wars. And then about 1 September 1939, the first day of the war, the German occupation, the establishment of the ghetto, the deportations. About escape, with Polish help. About survival.

Jewish man in Tarnów during the German occupation

It is such a rarity to have such rich visual material and together with detailed account of a Jewish town, that I consider it worthwhile to quote from it a number of stories over a few consecutive posts. The shtetl evoked in this way will help to form an image of the many other shtetls, from which no similar memories have survived. We start in medias res, and, leaving the description of the city’s everyday life to the next post, we first present the Al Capone of Tarnów, Idele Muc, on the basis of a report from Mordechai David Brandstetter, the great Tarnów master of Hebrew literature, as mediated by Jozef Hajman. The figure of Idele Muc shows that the sort of king of the Jewish underworld, like the Odessite Benya Krik, were not created or embellished merely by the fantasy of Isaac Babel, but they really existed, and formed a separate type, and they might have been present in many more cities, than only those from which we have a reports.

Jewish shops in the elegant Wałowa street. Many of the persons on the picture must have been Idele Muc’s clients

“Nowadays when I read about the safety of property and life in New York and Chicago, and when I hear talk about Al Capone, the king of the Chicago underground, I can remember, when I was still a boy, hearing the old folk talk about the Al Capone of Tarnów, who was, to put it mildly, the leader of Tarnów’s thieves seventy years ago. He was generally known by the nickname Idele Ganef [thief] or Idele Muc.

As a youth, Idele Muc had already been a pickpocket and thanks to his acuity became the leader of an organized gang of thieves. As he got old, he no longer actively practised this profession but taught it to young people. Thanks to his connections in the police force, when a member of his group was caught, Idele Muc could, in the majority of cases, just like the present day Al Capone, arrange for the release of the arrested man within a very short time.

In the event of a theft, the injured party would go to see Idele Muc. Initially, he would feign great surprise at being approached about such matters, but after a short exchange of words the injured party would pay him a sum of money and the stolen item would be covertly and quickly returned to its owner.

Idele Muc introduced a system which is now also used by Al Capone – in which, by paying an appropriate fee as protection money, the richer Jews were safe for some time from being robbed and burgled. Idele Muc, being a “man of honor”, usually fulfilled his obligations. But if he thought that the amount of the payment was too small in relation to the property under his protection, or if the “insured” delayed the “insurance payment”, another theft would quickly persuade the injured party that he should contact Idele Muc promptly.

He could have easily run a detective agency which would have become very popular with the residents. Thanks to a well-organized and efficient network of spies and thieves at his disposal, he knew the exact quantity and nature of the goods received and who had received them, how the recipient’s home was run, the layout of the rooms in the apartment, etc. And, above all, whether the amount of the “insurance fee” was fair to him.

Brandstaetter [i.e. the writer Mordecai David Brandstaetter] got married while he was still very young (he wasn’t more than 17 at the time) to the daughter of a very respected and wealthy local tanner, Abraham David; he then became an employee of his father-in-law. Abraham David was ʻprotected’ by Idele Muc. Despite that fact, one night two tanned sheepskins were stolen from a locked shed in his well-fenced yard. He had no choice but to call for Idele Muc and have a discussion with him.

Because Abraham David was a wealthy and respected manufacturer of tanned skins, Idele Muc accepted the invitation and visited Abraham David in person. The latter gave him a warm welcome, invited him to sit at the table where, apart from the host’s wife, Mrs. Goldele, Brandstaetter sat with his wife. The tanner complained to his guest about the theft that had taken place the previous night. Idele Muc was very sympathetic: “There’s no way of dealing with those thieves. Their insolence is beyond belief,” he said. The tanner asked him, in his capacity as an experienced and wise man, for advice, hinting that he was prepared to pay for the return of the stolen goods, which, incidentally, did not belong to him, but to a client of his. Idele Muc, in turn, complained about the present hard times and stated the amount of money that would be needed to “compensate” the thieves for the returned goods. Idele Muc also added that if any members of the household heard suspicious noises caused by some object falling down during the night, they should not be alarmed or curious about who was causing the commotion, because the consequences could be unpleasant for any inquisitive person.

As a sign that the negotiations were over, the host ordered that good vodka and sweet cake be served to the mutual agreement and satisfaction of all. Clinking glasses, Idele Muc drank the health of the host, the hostess, and, out of politeness, also that of his young son-in-law – the future gem of Hebrew literature. During the conversation, Brandstaetter asked the guest how it was possible to commit a theft when the fence was so high and protected with wire, and how one could cope with the solid lock on the shed. Idele Muc was very angered by the young man’s naive question and, as he was slightly under the influence of vodka, he turned to his host and said: “It’s insolent of the young man to ask questions like that. I’ve been a thief for several dozen years and, believe me, it’s hard and exhausting work! And this inquisitive young man here wants me to offhandedly tell him how these things are done…” The host reassured his guest by putting the unfortunate question down to his son-in-law’s young age. Having drunk one more glass, Idele Muc, feeling reassured, left the tanner’s hospitable home.

Later that night the sound of an object falling to the floor could be heard in the hall in David’s house. The next day David recognized the skins that had been stolen a few days before, which were returned in the same condition as they were before.”

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The Forteczna street in the Jewish neighborhood, 1930s

3 comentarios:

Lloyd Dunn dijo...

Thanks for posting this fascinating information. I want to make a minor observation, though, about something mentioned in your first paragraph, which does not at all detract from your post.

I believe that the reason the writing is clumsy on that excellent picture of the hasidic biker is because the words were created by scratching into the emulsion of the photographic negative so that it could be printed several times, to make copies for a small number of friends, for example. I've seen instances of this before.

The person scratching the words would have to have written a mirror image of the text, which accounts not only for the scratchy character of the letters, but also the backwards S suggests that they muddled the shape while trying to form the letter backwards. In addition, they would have had only one chance, no erasures or corrections would be possible, because once scratched, the emulsion is gone forever.

I am looking forward to following you around Tarnów next week when I take part in your tour!

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, I think you are absolutely right. I myself have never seen such inscription, scratched right into the emulsion, since it could have been much more nicely written on the print itself. However, if it is so, and this photo was multiplied for distribution – either to friends after the glorious Poland-Vienna tour of the Hasid, or, even better, during the tour, to the fans the sportsman meets on the way – then it is for another reason a witness to the break-up of the traditional world.

I’m also looking forward very much to our Polish trip. And I hope that before the departure I will have time to publish one or two more appetizers.

Anónimo dijo...

Anschluss was 12-13 March 1938 - Austria was annected by Germany, so it was rather opposite, he probably escaped from Austria to Poland.

Picture seems made in spring or summer, not in January-February.