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Last update - 15:55 21/10/2004
World of our (god)fathers
Basing his conclusions on carefully culled scraps of evidence, historian Mordechai Zalkin states that until World War II, the underworld in Warsaw, Vilna, Odessa and other large cities was controlled largely by Jewish syndicates. By 'our' people.
By Kobi Ben-Simhon

He takes them out with two hands and makes room for them. The stories are spread on the table. Historian Motti Zalkin looks at the dozens of documents that he has brought up to his fifth-floor office and smiles. The characters who form the background of the history of the Jewish people are enfolded in photocopied pages, waiting for it to happen. He prefers the small-scale histories, Zalkin says. He is a historian who doesn't like to deal with the central currents.

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.

Outside his office, workers are dragging a table along the corridor and whispering. The corridor goes on like an endless pipe, winding through a vast concrete structure, which preserves an academic silence, a late-afternoon tranquillity. Zalkin takes the conversation into the backyard of Jewish history, in mid-19th and early-20th century Eastern Europe. He spends a lot of his time there, trying to apprehend Jewish criminals who know no God.

Mystery man

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.

Zalkin: "In the police investigation one of the Jews testified that there was an apparatus within the community with the power to harm people and even to do away with them."

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. Sixteen-year-old Biela, from the town of Kavtsiel, falls victim to this well-oiled scheme. She was promised work in a household and one of the prostitutes explains what she must do: "The virgins of Kavtsiel are in demand here, and if they are clever and know why they are in demand, they end up getting rich and everyone is happy." The innocent Biela doesn't have a clue about what is meant, but afterward learns from the older prostitutes and the pimps how to be seductive and how to perform.

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.