“Urke Nakhalnik will give a lecture on the topic Underworld and Overworld.” Polish/Yiddish poster. Artwork by Kultura. Printed by Filharmonja, Łódź, 1934. (YIVO)

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Nakhalnik, Urke

(1897–1942?), pseudonym of Yitskhok Farberovitsh, writer of books on the Polish Jewish criminal underworld. Urke Nakhalnik was born in the Łomża region in 1897 to a middle-class family. As a boy, he went to heder and later attended the local yeshiva with the intention of becoming a rabbi. At the age of 14, following the death of his mother, he ran away to Vilna, where he taught Hebrew and Bible. While there, he was caught stealing from his employer and was sentenced to prison for a short time. Following his release, he worked at a variety of jobs, including as an assistant to a wagon driver. This association led him into the company of professional thieves and criminals. From that point on, he spent much time in and out of prison.

In 1927, at the age of 30, Nakhalnik was sentenced to 8 years in the Rawicz prison after being convicted of bank robbery. It was there that he first explored an interest in writing and worked on his autobiography. During this period, Nakhalnik came into contact with a Polish researcher named Stanisław Kowalski, who copyedited his work and arranged for its publication. Nakhalnik’s book, Życiorys własny przestępcy (Biography of a Criminal), was published in Polish in 1933, with an introduction by Stefan Blachowski, a professor at the University of Poznań. It was also serialized in Yiddish that year in the daily Haynt and subsequently published in book form as Mayn lebnsveg in 1938. The novel was also serialized in the Yiddish presses of New York, Riga, and Buenos Aires, and published in a Russian edition. Nakhalnik’s book was a sensation because it brought to light the life of the criminal underworld in a literary form. Not only was it well received by critics, but it also was extremely popular with the general reading public.

Though Nakhalnik’s first book was translated into Yiddish by a third party, he subsequently began writing in Yiddish. He wrote Alts tsulib froyen (All on Account of Women), which was serialized in Haynt in 1933; Dintoyre: Shpanendike roman fun a ganef (Judgment: The Thrilling Story of a Thief), which became a successful Yiddish stage play. He also wrote the short stories “Der korbn” (The Victim), “Mokotov” (the title is the name of a poor Warsaw neighborhood) and “Yosele goy” (Yosele the Gentile), all of which contain vivid descriptions of underworld characters and their lives inside and outside prison. These were published in Polish and in Yiddish papers in Poland and America. The Yiddish dailies also serialized subsequent volumes of his autobiography: Lebedike kvorim: Der letster klap (Living Graves: The Final Blow) and Videroyflebung, oder der oysgeleyzter (Resurrection, or the Reformed One) in 1932–1933.

Released from prison in 1933, Nakhalnik married, had a son, and settled near Vilna. He was an occasional guest at YIVO, where he took an interest in underworld lexicography and provided comments and corrections to YIVO’s collection of thieves’ argot. He was also a frequent guest at the Jewish Writers Union in Warsaw at 13 Tłomackie Street when he visited the city. He moved to Otwock in 1936, where he continued to write until the beginning of World War II.

At the onset of the war, Nakhalnik left for Warsaw, where he reestablished contact with the criminal underworld and began to collect money and arms for attacks against the Germans. In March 1940, he and a band of underworld types led a fight against a group of Polish collaborators who had been hired by the Germans to attack Jews. At a meeting of Jewish underground leaders, which included Mordekhai Anielewicz and Bundist leader Mikhl Klepfisz, Nakhalnik demanded funding to organize immediate reprisals against the Nazis. While Anielewicz supported the plan, Nakhalnik’s request was rejected. He returned to Otwock, where he organized sabotage attacks on the rail lines that led to Treblinka. As a result of these actions, a number of Jews escaped from the trains and he subsequently helped them hide in the nearby forests. He was eventually caught by the Germans, who murdered him in Otwock after he attacked his guard.

Suggested Reading

Zaynvl Diamant, “Urke Nakhalnik,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 1, cols. 38–40 (New York, 1956); Leyb Fayngold, “Ikh bin geblibn lebn,” Morgn zhurnal (2 and 6 January 1946): 5; Gwido Zlatkes, “Urke Nakhalnik: A Voice from the Underworld,” Polin 16 (2003): 381–388.