Pedagogy

Reconstructing the Bibliography of a “Master Criminal”

Jonah Lubin

INTRODUCTION

In 2003, Gwi­do Zlatkes remarked that Despite the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Nachalnik’s writ­ings in inter-war Poland, his bib­li­og­ra­phy is rather dif­fi­cult to recon­struct.” Since the advent of opti­cal char­ac­ter recog­ni­tion, and the efforts of the nation­al libraries of Israel and Poland, as well as the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter, it has become sig­nif­i­cant­ly eas­i­er. Below, Jon­ah Lubin explains how he recon­struct­ed this bib­li­og­ra­phy as a resource for In gevebs read­ers. Click here to down­load the Urke Nachal­nik bibliography.

Note from the Edi­tors: We wel­come your sub­mis­sions that enable us to become a repos­i­to­ry of ref­er­ence resources (like this one) for Yid­dish stud­ies schol­ars and teach­ers. Please send such sub­mis­sions to pedagogy@​ingeveb.​org.

Yitzhok Farberovitsh was born around 1897 in what is now Poland. He attended yeshiva, but eventually dropped out and turned to a life of crime. He was caught, tried, and incarcerated, spending at least seventeen years behind bars. While in prison, he began to write fiction and memoir in Polish. He dubbed himself Urke Nachalnik which means either “master criminal” or “petty crook,” depending on who you ask. While still in prison, his work attracted the attention of a Polish benevolent association, which published the first volume of his memoir and petitioned for his release. Soon after Nachalnik was freed, he sued them for copyright infringement. Once free, Nachalnik began a career as a man of letters. He wrote fiction, memoir, and drama, and went on lecture tours and gained considerable popular acclaim. In the first days of the invasion of Poland, the Nazis killed him in Otwock. There are varied accounts of his death, but they are invariably heroic. For a more detailed sketch of Nachalnik’s life, see the chapter on him in Eddy Portnoy’s Bad Rabbi or Gwido Zlatkes’s article “Urke Nachalnik: A Voice from the Underworld,” both of which I have incorporated into the bibliography below. 1 1 Eddy Portnoy, Bad Rabbi (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2017), 108-117.; Gwido Zlatkes, ” Urke Nachalnik: A Voice from the Underworld,” Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 16: Focusing on Jewish Popular Culture and Its Afterlife (2003): 381-388

In 2003, Gwido Zlatkes remarked that “Despite the popularity of Nachalnik’s writings in inter-war Poland, his bibliography is rather difficult to reconstruct.” Since the advent of optical character recognition, and the efforts of the national libraries of Israel and Poland, as well as the Yiddish Book Center, it has become significantly easier. Now the contents of thousands of books and periodicals are searchable. 2 2https://www.nli.org.il/en/newspapers/, https://polona.pl/, https://ocr.yiddishbookcenter.org/. To collect the bulk of the data presented in this bibliography, I searched the machine readable content of the Yiddish, Polish, and English digital archives for “אורקע נאכאלניק” and “Urke Nachalnik,” respectively. There were many results: at the time of writing this, April 10th, 2023, there were 426 results for both queries in the NLI archive, 371 in the Polona archive, and 38 in the Yiddish Book Center. I went through these results chronologically and recorded them.

Of course, Polish and English OCR are not perfect, and Yiddish OCR, though making great strides, is worse. This means that not every mention of Urke Nachalnik in the Yiddish/Polish/English press has been properly read. On the 24th-26th of September, in Hayntige nayes in the NLI archive, the OCR reads his name as אנרסע נאכאדניק, אורקע _נאכאדניס, and אורקע נאכאלניס. But the beauty of serialized fiction is that names are repeated many times over many issues. So if you are looking for the novels of a certain author, over the course of any given novel’s run in a newspaper, the OCR is bound to get it right at least every once in a while. This makes longer fiction easier to find: all you need to do is find a single entry, then go backwards and forwards through the publication until the start-dates and end-dates have been determined. Shorter fiction and one-offs are, of course, more elusive. But OCR is good enough that their location in archives can often be determined using single entries, advertisements, knowledge of publication patterns, and brute force archive-trawling. It is also very good, in a buckshot sort of way, at finding other ephemeral material like advertisements. This sort of elliptical reading of the archive, zooming out then zooming back in, I have found very effective for extracting publication data, and would recommend it as a method to construct bibliographies of under-researched authors.

Even with OCR, Nachalnik’s bibliography is often strange and confusing. The titles in his oeuvre repeat uncannily, often across languages, referring to different works. For example, the Yiddish version of the third volume of his memoir is called Alts tsulib froyen (“Everything for the sake of women”). In Polish there is a work entitled Gdyby nie kobiety, (“If it weren’t for women”), which does not correspond to Alts tsulib froyen, but to the final part of a novel which in Yiddish is called Nakht mentshn (“Night People”). The first part of Nakht mentshn was later republished as a series of booklets by Herkules under the title Mentshn on a morgn (“People without a tomorrow”), which does not correspond to the polish Ludzie bez Jutra (“People without a future”). Ludzie bez Jutra corresponds to the Yiddish Yoldishe neshomes (“Naive Souls”).

Although the Urke Nachalnik craze was perhaps bigger in the Yiddish world, his fame in Polish has been longer lasting. In Polish, Urke Nachalnik is still very much in print. In fact, I decided to cap my bibliography of Polish primary sources of his work at 1989 because of the incredible profusion of editions in recent years. These can be found with nothing more than a Google search. To give a few examples: in 2018, Życiorys własny przestępcy was published by a press called Replika. In 2021, Miasto Książek published the three volumes of his Ludzie Nocy series: Rozpruwacze, W matni, and Gdyby nie kobiety. The latter two were also recently published in the series “Klasyka Polskiego Kryminału” (“Classics of the Polish Crime Novel”).

There is still much to learn about the life and work of Urke Nachalnik. Three questions I find particularly interesting are:

What languages were Nachalnik’s writings composed in over the course of his career and who translated them?

It is generally agreed upon that at least the first volume of his memoir, as well as the early fiction, were composed in Polish during his incarceration. 3 3 C.f. Eddy Portnoy, Bad Rabbi (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2017), 108-117.; Gwido Zlatkes, ” Urke Nachalnik: A Voice from the Underworld,” Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 16: Focusing on Jewish Popular Culture and Its Afterlife (2003): 381-388. Accounts of who translated them differ. Nachalnik’s entry in the Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur states: “Initially, they were translated from the Polish by Arn Mark and Yoysef-Shimen Goldshteyn (“the happy pessimist”), and thereafter he began to write in Yiddish.” 4 4 Zaynvl Diamant, “Urke Nachalnik (NAKHALNIK),” trans. Joshua Fogel, URKE NACHALNIK (NAKHALNIK), May 15, 2014, https://yleksikon.blogspot.com.... A 1933 article from the Forverts, on the other hand, claims that Nachalnik was his own translator. 5 5 “Notitsn fun der ‘Forverts’ redaktsye,’ Forverts, March 9, 1933, https://www.nli.org.il/en/news.... In the first years of Nachalnik’s career, the Polish versions tend to precede the Yiddish versions (c.f. the early publication of Życiorys własny przestępcy, Żywe Grobowce) whereas in the later part of his career, the trend is reversed (Alts tsulib froyen and Yoldishe neshomes both appear years before their Polish counterparts, Szlakiem Melin and Ludzie bez Jutra). This would indicate that his latter work was composed in Yiddish, but more research would be required to confirm this hypothesis.

What plays were performed?

I have located firm evidence that he was involved in the production of two plays (Din Toyre/Urke Nachalnik and Nakht-mentshn) that debuted at the Scala theater. 6 6 “Urke Nachalnik na scene,” Dobry Wieczór, December 23, 1933, https://polona.pl/item/dobry-w...; Premiere of “Nacht Menszn” to be performed at the Scala theater, advertisement, Nasz Przegląd, December 27, 1934. https://polona.pl/item/nasz-pr....
But Burshteyn writes he bought the rights to three, and mentions by name one called Der Betler-kenig. 7 7 Peysakhke Burshteyn, Geshpilt a lebn, (Tel-Aviv: n.p., 1980), 256-257, 282. In 1939, there is mention made of two new plays that Nachalnik had just completed, but it seems unlikely that they were ever staged. 8 8 Tsvey pyeses fun Urke Nakhalnik, Di tat, July 28, 1939, https://www.nli.org.il/en/news...

Was Nachalnik ever translated into English?

There are two separate indications that there were plans for Nachalnik’s memoirs to be translated into English. 9 9 “Urke Nakhalnik in English,” Hayntige Nayes, December 26, 1933, https://www.nli.org.il/en/news...; “Urke-Nachalnik w języku angielskim,” Głos Poranny, September 1, 1937. https://polona.pl/item/glos-po.... The 1949 Hebrew translation of Din-Toyre includes a promotional quote from a London publication called the הװרד ז’ורנל (presumably the Howard Journal of Crime and Justice). 10 10 Urke Nachalnik, “Ahavah u-Nekamah,” trans. Y. Ben Shmuel, (Tel-Aviv: Dan, 1949).

I would like to express my gratitude to people who helped me in this research. To Eddy Portnoy, who gave me access to his notes and spurred me on. To Marlena Lipińska and the people at the Polish National Library for providing me with biographical information on Nachalnik. And to Vardit Samuels and the people at the Judaica library division at Harvard for helping me gain access to the very rare 1949 Hebrew translation of “Din-Toyre.”

The following bibliography is divided into primary and secondary sources, and then further divided by language. The entries are then listed chronologically. Two equals signs (==) indicates an equivalent version of a given work in a different language.

Click here to download the Urke Nachalnik bibliography.

Note from the Edi­tors: We wel­come your sub­mis­sions that enable us to become a repos­i­to­ry of ref­er­ence resources (like this one) for Yid­dish stud­ies schol­ars and teach­ers. Please send such sub­mis­sions to pedagogy@​ingeveb.​org.

MLA STYLE
Lubin, Jonah. “Reconstructing the Bibliography of a "Master Criminal".” In geveb, April 2023: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/urke-nachalnik-bibliography.
CHICAGO STYLE
Lubin, Jonah. “Reconstructing the Bibliography of a "Master Criminal".” In geveb (April 2023): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonah Lubin

Jonah Lubin is a student of comparative literature at the Freie Universität Berlin. He is a former editorial intern at In geveb.