Jan 10, 2020
I came across “Di Korbones Fun ‘Vaysn Sam’” [“Victims of the White Poison”] by chance while looking up a Yiddish précis of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (titled “The Book of Pain and Tears in 1,000 Words”) published in the same June 1939 issue of the Warsaw Yiddish illustrated weekly Far Ale (1, no. 4). I was taken in by the photograph accompanying the article of a cocaine addict with identifiably Jewish features—“A typical female cocaine addict [kokainistke] with a crazed expression in the eyes,” according to the caption.
At first, the article resembles other sensationalist exposés on the dangers of drugs from the 1930s (think of “Reefer Madness”). The scourge of cocaine, the reader is informed, has spread rapidly across the globe in recent years. Yet the article conveys fascinating information about the intrigues of the Polish drug trade and the efforts of the police to thwart notorious dealers in Warsaw and the surrounding region.
Like other population groups undergoing rapid urbanization in the early decades of the twentieth century, members of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe encountered recreational drug use and the accompanying menace of addiction. While tobacco smoking had long been present in Jewish life, in particular among Hasidim (the lulke, or long pipe, smoked by the Baal Shem Tov was later conferred nearly magical powers in Hasidic hagiography), modern narcotics and the shadowy network of criminal organizations involved in the drug trade were perceived as a looming threat. “Di Korbones Fun ‘Vaysn Sam,’” published at the outbreak of World War II, is a testimony to the spread of recreational drug use within the Jewish community and its emergence as a subject of interest in the Yiddish press.