Oys in the hood! The drama explores the Jewish mafia that ruled Warsaw before the Holocaust
LEft like a smoldering heap of smoldering ruins after WWII, Warsaw has been all but razed to the ground, while the once thriving Jewish population of the Polish capital has suffered a blow that
he would never recover.
Indeed, of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, half
It was far from the Warsaw that everyone knew before 1939; a cosmopolitan city boasting glitter, glamor and grandeur, which has earned it the nickname “Paris of the North”.
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Today, the dynamism of the interwar period and Warsaw’s Yiddishkeit have partly returned thanks to the sumptuous drama of director Jan P Matuszynski, King of Warsaw, which premieres at the Kinoteka film festival next week and airs on More4 later this year.
But rather than looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, the eight-part series also features poverty, violent crime, and brutal politics.
from the belly of Warsaw, where fascists, nationalists and Jews
compete for control.
Based on Szczepan Twardoch’s bestselling 2016 novel, Król, the plot revolves around Warsaw in 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, played
by Polish actor Michal Zurawski.
On the surface, he’s a loving husband and loving father, but that belies his insatiable appetite for murder, sex, and violence, as well as his ambitions to usurp Buddy and become the King of Warsaw.
Although essentially a work of fiction – and an almost inconceivable mixture of The Godfather with the Orthodox Jewish world of Yentl – the main actor Zurawski wishes to mention that “the historical context is authentic”.
For example, Szapiro is based on real-life personality Szapsel Rotholc, a light Jewish boxer who became a policeman in the ghetto during the war – although he never dabbled in gangsterism. Szapiro’s story, however, is typical, says Zurawski, of Polish Jews who “aspired to climb the social ladder.”
Speaking over Zoom, the 41-year-old actor, born in Silesia before later moving to Warsaw, explains: “I tried to imagine myself in his place. He was born into an Orthodox Hasid family in a very poor area of Warsaw. All his life, he wanted to be treated as an equal, to climb the social ladder.
“In order for the Jews to do this at the time of his birth – when Poland was part of Russia – they had to speak three languages: Yiddish at home, Polish for street people and Russian for talking to authorities.
“I was trying to understand his brutal ways of doing things and felt that men like him had no choice, it was the only way for them to break through.
But Szapiro is a complex character. Despite his desire to break with his Orthodox roots, he refuses to completely forget his Jewish identity.
“He still has a Jewish soul and struggles to find that place where he feels comfortable with his heritage,” says Zurawski.
Equally baffling is Szapiro’s ability to brutally murder an Orthodox Jew for not paying for protection, only to then take his victim’s 17-year-old son, Mojzesz, under his wing and “train him in the gangster business.” As his successor.
It was these dichotomies that made Szapiro all the more attractive as a role for Zurawski, alongside the actor’s 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 grandfather’s story is complicated. He comes from a Jewish family, but was brought up in the Catholic religion. As a teenager, he joined the local army, although Jews were not welcome. After the war, he went into hiding because the Communists persecuted the soldiers.
“He did not come out of his hiding place until after Stalin’s death, but he still had to hide his Jewish identity. My grandfather only mentioned it when he was an old man and I’m determined to find out more about my journey.
Zurawski is currently trying to find out the last name of his great-grandmother, who moved to Poland from the Crimean region and got married in a Catholic church.
“I hope I can devote more time to his research,” he adds, before revealing that he has just become ambassador for the Jewish community in Warsaw.
“The situation is changing here, as there is a growing sense of nostalgia for the city’s Jewish heritage. Before the war, a third of the population was Jewish. This was completed first by the Germans, who executed their plans very effectively, and then by the Communists after the war. But when I talk to young people today, I really have the feeling that they want to know more. They want to rediscover this part of our history.
- The King of Warsaw premieres at the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival on June 3, https://kinoteka.org.uk and arriving on More 4 from August 13