Tsugob: Urke Nachalnik on the Yiddish Stage

Jonah Lubin


Last spring we pub­lished Jon­ah Lubin’s overview and bib­li­og­ra­phy of Mas­ter Crim­i­nal” Urke Nachal­nik. Now, he has expand­ed this research to include rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Urke Nachal­nik on the Yid­dish stage. Click here to down­load the ear­li­er 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.

While in Polish prison, Urke Nachalnik (born Icik Farbarovitsh) showed a manuscript of his memoir to a social worker. The rest is history: the memoir was soon published in Polish as Życiorys własny przestępcy (Life Story of a Former Criminal) and met with popular acclaim. It was then translated into Yiddish and serialized in newspapers in Europe and the Americas. Nachalnik became a prolific writer, publishing further volumes of his memoirs, novels, and short stories in Yiddish and Polish. I have compiled a preliminary bibliography of his work, published by In geveb.

This post serves as a supplement to my initial reference piece about Urke Nachalnik, which goes beyond the strictly biographical to bring to light the ways that this figure was represented in the Yiddish popular imagination.

A review in the Yiddish press after the Polish publication of his memoir makes it clear that almost immediately Nachalnik became a known quantity, firmly entrenched in the Yiddish imagination. The crime writer Sergiusz Piasecki, who also wrote of the underworld while in prison, was referred to in the Yiddish press as The Polish ‘Urke Nachalnik’ among journalists. 1 1 “Pyasetski oyf der fray,” Lubliner Togblot (Lublin), August 9, 1932. Tiflis-born Mikhail Rotenberg was transformed into Urke Nachalnik of Soviet Russia in order to hawk cheap paperbacks. 2 2 “Urke Nakhalnik fun Sovet-Rusland,” Dos Vort (Kaunas), November 25, 1934. In 1934, Nachalnik was caricatured on stage alongside Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein. 3 3 Nachalnik caricatured at a literary event, advertisement, Der Moment (Warsaw), August 22, 1934. A fictionalized version of Nachalnik appeared in a “humoreska” in the Polish-Jewish paper 5-ta rano. 4 4 Kipnis, M. “Urke Nachalnik dziesiąty do ‘minjan,’ ” 5-ta Rano, (Warsaw), August 15, 1937. After he was killed by the Nazis in Otwock, many accounts of his death proliferated, often different but invariably heroic. 5 5 Cf. “Keytsad nirtsach Urke Nakhalnik?,” Ha-Mashkif (Tel-Aviv), January 29, 1940; Zalmen Zylbercweig. “Urke Nachalnik.” Essay. In Leksikon Fun Yidishn Teater 5, 5:4264–68. (Mexico City: Elisheve), 1967. By the 1960s, he had become so legendary that it had to be clarified that Urke Nachalnik was not an invented folk character, but was once a living, breathing person. 6 6 “2 teater-oyffirungen in Yisroel,” Der tog (New York), August 8, 1962.

Urke Nachalnik was also made popular as a legendary figure by the Yiddish theater. Though I have been unable to find any scripts, traces of this activity survive. The following is an attempt to trace Nachalnik’s always polarizing, always popular presence on the Yiddish stage: a shund sensation both as writer and as character.

The first play associated with Urke Nachalnik was known variously as Din Toyre fun Urke Nakhalnik, Urke Nakhalnik: ‘Din Toyre,’ Urke Nachalnik: a Din Toyre, or simply Urke Nachalnik. 7 7 “Din toyre at the Eldorado theater”, advertisement, Unzer Express (Warsaw), February 15, 1935; “Din Toyre” at the Scala theater, advertisement, Der Moment (Warsaw), December 26, 1933,; “ ‘Urke Nakhalnik’ in ‘Skala,’ ” Unzer Express, November 30, 1933,; Di Lider fun Urke Nachalnik, (Warsaw: N. Froyshnayder, 1934). The play premiered on the 28th of December, 1933, and its original run lasted until around March of 1934, when its masterminds (Rose Shoshana and Moris Lampe) went on tour in the province. 8 8 “Urke Nachalnik ‘Din Toyre’ at La Scala,” advertisement, Literarishe Bleter (Warsaw), March 9, 1934. Masterminds indeed: though Nachalnik’s name was front and center, he did not write it. According to Zilbercweig, the play was born when Rose Shoshana “dramatized and translated” Nachalnik’s novel Miłość przestępcy (Love of a Criminal) from Polish, casting Moris Lampe as Urke Nachalnik and herself as the love interest, Reyzele. 9 9 Zylbercweig, Lexicon, 4265. Shoshana then changed the title to the more theatrical Din toyre, which, according to Nachalnik, mean’s “internal thieves’ court” in underworld slang. In 1934, Hayntige nayes published the Yiddish version of Miłość przestępcy and, cashing in on the play’s success, titled it Din toyre as well. 10 10 “Din-toyre (shpanender lebns-roman fun a ganef),” Hayntige Nayes, January 19, 1934 - March 5, 1934. A 1934 advertisement from Literarishe bleter provides us with a look at the production’s cast and crew: adaptation: Rose Shoshana; director: Moris Lampe; music: D. Beygelman; set design: V. Vayntroyb; choreography: L. Rotboym.

Nachalnik’s name is centered, emphasized by black bars, and printed with the largest font. Clearly, Nachalnik was the driving marketing force here, and the advertisements were meant for a theater-going public already in the throes of Urkemania.

Urke Nachalnik: Din Toyre was popular enough that in 1934, N. Froyshnayder released a songbook which included lyrics from the play. 11 11 Di Lider fun Urke Nachalnik, (Warsaw: N. Froyshnayder, 1934). It sold for the price of 20 groschen and collected ‘the songs from Urke Nachalnik from the Scala theater and the songs from Nowości theater, from the revues of the Jewish band Tantst yudelekh tantst and Nisht geshtoygn, nisht gefloygn. The book includes the songs A ganefs a trer (A thief’s tear), A ganef is a takef (A thief is a powerful person), Tfise-lid (Prison-song), and Reyzele, (the name of the Rose Shoshana’s character in the play). A ganefs a trer and A ganef iz a takef were also printed in Polish orthography at the end of the book. These songs seem primarily to be from Urke Nachalnik: Din Toyre — only Metsies seems likely to have been from the aforementioned revues at the Nowości theatre. There is also record of a song entitled Din-toyre, which is not in this songbook.

The An-sky Jewish Research Folklore Project has posted a recording of this song, stating it was sung in “Urke Nachalnik: Din Toyre.” Another recording of this song has been collected and digitized by the National Library of Israel. It can be heard here at 15 minutes and 30 seconds.

An anecdote is often told about Urke Nachalnik: Din Toyre concerning an episode so marketable that it is hard to believe it actually happened: at one point during the play’s run, the Warsaw underworld was so unhappy with Nachalnik blowing their cover that they broke into the La Scala theater and stole all the costumes. A few days later, a representative of the thieves came forward, and, according to Batog, told Moris Lampe over the phone: “If you’re going to play jokes on us, we’re going to play jokes on you.” 12 12 “Nekome-akt fun der untervelt ibern ‘Urke Nakhalnik,’ ” Batog, January 1, 1934.

More conventional critique is recorded in a review by a columnist for the Bundist Vokhnshrift far literatur, kunst un kultur. “Yud Pey” ends his extremely negative review (Yidish teater vert geshandet!) by using the play to attack shund theater more broadly: “We are not writing a review of a theatrical performance. That would, in this case, be superfluous. We are raising up a voice against the fact that the Yiddish stage is being degraded, that it is permitted to feed the theater-masses such horrid shund. 13 13 “Yidish teater vert geshendet!” Vokhnshrift far literatur, kunst un kultur, no. 3, January 10, 1934. Cited in Eddy Portnoy, Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2017), 252. Nonetheless, Zilbercweig refers to Urke Nachalnik: Din Toyre as a “gigantic success,” which continued to be performed long after its initial run. 14 14 Zylbercweig, Lexicon, 4265. The lexicon lists a performance in 1934 in Riga and another in 1939 Kaunas. 15 15 Ibid. An advertisement in the Polish Jewish paper Nasz Przegląd indicates it was playing in 1937 at the Nowości theater in Warsaw. Though it is not entirely clear, it seems it was also performed in Israel at the Teatron Chadash in 1962. 16 16 “2 teater-oyffirungen in Yisroel,” Der tog (New York), August 8, 1962.

The second Urke Nachalnik play, “Nakht Mentshn,” premiered at La Scala on New Years Eve, 1935. The sources indicate that this play was written by Nachalnik himself. 17 17 Cf. Nachalnik play “Nakht-mentshn,” advertisement, Haynt, December 31, 1935; “Nakht-mentshn,” advertisement, Haynt (Warsaw), December 31, 1935; “Nakht-menshn,” advertisement, Najer morgen, January 1, 1932 An advertisement from Haynt gives us some more information about the premiere:

The play was composed of two acts and ten scenes. It was written and adapted for the stage by Urke Nachalnik and directed by Chaim Sandler. The lyrics for the songs A harts fun a ganef (The Heart of a Thief) and Zingendik un tantsndik (Singing and dancing) were written by Y. Pedlov. Music by St. Pershko and R. Berl-nes. “The best actors” took part: Openheym, Bozhik, Bugzon, Grudberg, Dikhtenberg, Viner, Zandberg, Nayvirt and more. Some of this cast (Strugatsh, Bozhik, Openheym, Bugzan) are pictured in the below photograph, taken in 1935 at La Scala. 18 18 Zylbercweig, Lexicon, 4265.

A 1937 review of a performance of Nakht Mentshn at the Warsaw Yudish Folks Teater by B. Ginsberg, printed in Najer Morgan, provides some information on the play. 19 19 Varshaver yudish folks-teater ‘Nakht-mentshn,’ Najer Morgen (Lviv), January 1, 1937. Ginsberg begins his review by saying “one can have reservations about the play, as about the whole Urke Nachalnik literature, dragging the underworld up onto the stage etc.,” indicating the existence of a genre of “Nachalnik literature” and that the literary elites disapproval thereof, before spending the rest of the review praising the performances. The reviewer describes “Nakht Mentshn” as a “stage montage” in two acts and nine scenes about the life of a thief, forced to remain a thief by a corrupt society. The final word on the play was that it was a “spektakl, that deserves success and will make a furor.”

There is also a Nachalnik novel entitled Nakht mentshn (still in print in Polish, as most of his books are, as “Ludzie Nocy”), which began to be printed in Hayntige nayes in May of 1935 after the performance of the play with the same title. This seems to be the same case as “Din toyre:” Nachalnik’s publications in the Yiddish press were titled after his plays in order to tie-in to popular Yiddish theater.

There exist other references to plays by Nachalnik, but I can find little evidence to corroborate them. A 1936 notice in Unzer Express states that Jack Rekhttsayt had bought the rights to the new play Urke Nakhalnik un zayn Lebnsveg, a biography of Nachalnik’s life in two acts and 24 scenes. A notice in Di tat states that Nachalnik had just finished writing two pieces: Yoldishe Neshomes and Mayn Lebn. The first was to be put on in Warsaw by Lampe and Shoshana, the second in America by Peysakhke Burshteyn. 20 20 Tsvey pyeses fun Urke Nakhalnik, Di tat (Warsaw), July 28, 1939. That same Peysakhke Burshteyn states he bought the exclusive rights to Nachalnik’s three best plays, but that they “all require a very large cast and are better suited to the screen than to the stage,” and were never produced. 21 21 Peysakhke Burshteyn, Geshpilt a lebn (Tel-Aviv: n.p.), 1980. At another point in Geshpilt a lebn, he states that he and his company began a season around 1941 in Buenos Aires with a play by Nachalnik entitled Der betler-kenig (The king of beggars) which Nachalnik wrote especially for them. Besides the above, I can find no evidence for the production of these plays.

It is time we examine shund celebrity more closely. In Shomer’s heyday, unscrupulous publishers would print suspenseful, popular novels by uncredited authors and, knowing the Yiddish reading public clamored for new novels by the master of shund, publish them under Shomer’s name. The Yiddish literary world bent and distorted, warped by Shomer’s celebrity. What were the literary predilections and preoccupations peculiar to that corporate author called Pseudo-Shomer? The specifics of this phenomenon remain to be studied.

The case of Urke Nachalnik is similar: his literary and (especially) personal celebrity changed the fabric of Yiddish cultural life, at least for a little while. Plays were written in his honor, he was imitated on stage, he was the main character in literary sketches. He originated a small but influential genre in which he was the central figure — a minor cult of personality, fascinated by the thief turned literatus. Though Nachalnik’s is a rather extreme case, the importance of the personality of the shund writer can also be read, for example, in those Forverts advertisements which loudly proclaim to their hungry readership that a new novel by Leon Gottlieb would begin in the coming days. 22 22 For example: . Found on For more on Leon Gottlieb, see Ellen Kellman, “The Newspaper Novel in the Jewish Daily Forward, 1900-1940” (PhD Diss, Columbia University), 2000. The influence of the personality of canonical Yiddish writers has been well studied, but the influence of the personality of non-canonical Yiddish writers, as with so many aspects of non-canonical Yiddish literature, remains to be explored. If we are able to trace and describe this fundamental aspect of the popular Yiddish press, then we will have illuminated an important aspect of those texts most read by the general Yiddish reader.

Lubin, Jonah. “Tsugob: Urke Nachalnik on the Yiddish Stage.” In geveb, February 2024:
Lubin, Jonah. “Tsugob: Urke Nachalnik on the Yiddish Stage.” In geveb (February 2024): Accessed Jun 13, 2024.


Jonah Lubin

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