Oys in the hood! Drama explores the Jewish mafia which ruled pre-Shoah Warsaw – Jewish News

Posted By on May 29, 2021

Left as a smouldering heap of ruins after the Second World War, Warsaw was virtually razed to the ground, while the Polish capitals once flourishing Jewish population suffered a blow from whichit would never recover.

Indeed, of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, halfwere Polish.

It was a far cry from the Warsaw everyone knew before 1939; a cosmopolitan city boasting glitz, glamour and grandeur, earning it the nickname, Paris of the North.

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Now Warsaws interwar vibrancy and Yiddishkeit has partly returned thanks to director Jan P Matuszynskis sumptuous drama, The King of Warsaw, which premieres atKinoteka film festival next weekand airs on More4 later this year.

But rather than looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, the eight-part series also presents the poverty, violent crime and brutal politicsof Warsaws underbelly, where fascists, nationalists and Jews allvie for control.

Szapiro is based on Szapsel Rotholc

Based on Szczepan Twardochs bestselling 2016 novel, Krl, the plot revolves around the Warsaw of 1937, where the Jewish mafia rules the city under the leadership of Buddy Kaplica, a Polish gangster-socialist with connections in high places.

His right-hand man is heavyweight Jewish boxer Jakub Szapiro, playedby Polish actor Michal Zurawski.

On the surface, he is a loving husband and doting father, but that belies his insatiable appetite for murder, sex and violence, as well as his ambitions to usurp Buddy and become theking of Warsaw.

While essentially a work of fiction and an almost inconceivable mix of The Godfather with the Orthodox Jewish world of Yentl lead actor Zurawski is keen to mention the historical background is authentic.

For example, Szapiro is based on a real-life personality, Szapsel Rotholc, a Jewish lightweight boxer who became a policeman in the ghetto during the war although he never dabbled in gangsterism. Szapiros back story is however typical, says Zurawski, of Polish Jews whoaspired to climb the social ladder.

Speaking over Zoom, the 41-year-old actor, who was born in Silesia before later moving to Warsaw, explains: I tried to imagine myself in his shoes. He was born to an Orthodox Chassid family, in a very impoverished part of Warsaw. His whole life he wanted to be treated as an equal, to climb the social ladder.

For Jewish people to do that at the time he was born when Poland was a part of Russia they had to speak three languages: Yiddish at home, Polish for the people in the street and Russian to speak to the authorities.

I was trying to understand his brutal ways of doing things and I felt that men like him had no choice, that was the only way out for them to break through.

But Szapiro is a complex character. Despite his desire to break forth from his Orthodox roots, he refuses to forget his Jewish identity altogether.

He still has a Jewish soul and struggles to find that place where he feels comfortable with his heritage, explains Zurawski.

Equally confounding is Szapiros ability to violently murder an Orthodox Jewish man for failing to pay protection money, only to then take his victims 17-year-old son Mojzesz under his wing andtrain him in the gangster tradeas his successor.

Teenager Mojzesz is taken under the wing of gangster Szapiro

Its these dichotomies that made Szapiro all the more appealing as a role to Zurawski, alongside the actors own Jewish heritage.

I was a teenager when my grandfather told me about our Jewish roots, so I felt very connected to this role, he recalls.

My grandfathers story is a complicated one. He came from a Jewish family, but was brought up Catholic. As a teenager, he joined the home army, even though Jewish people were not welcomed. After the war, he went into hiding because the communists persecuted the soldiers.

He only came out of hiding after Stalins death, but he still had to hide his Jewish identity. My grandfather only talked about it when he was an old man and Im determined to find out more about my background.

Zurawski is now in the process of trying to discover the surname of his great-grandmother, who moved to Poland from the Crimea region and married in a Catholic church.

Im hoping I can devote more time to research it, he adds, before revealing he has just become an ambassador for the Jewish community of Warsaw.

The situation is changing here, because there is a growing sense of nostalgia for the citys Jewish heritage. Before the war, one third of the population was Jewish. That was finished first by the Germans, who very efficiently carried through their plans, and then the communists after the war. But when I speak to young people today, I definitely feel they want to learn more. They want to rediscover this part of our history.

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Oys in the hood! Drama explores the Jewish mafia which ruled pre-Shoah Warsaw - Jewish News

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