|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.
One of the major episodes in which a Jewish criminal organization was involved occurred in Vilna in February 1923. It received unusual coverage in the local Yiddish paper. For four consecutive days the paper’s lead stories dealt with the events.
A Jewish gang that called itself the “Gold Flag” kidnapped a boy from a wealthy family for ransom. According to the police, the man behind the kidnapping, Berl Kravitz, had belonged to the Capone gang in the United States a few years earlier. Zelig Levinson, the head of Gold Flag, gave the green light for the operation to proceed despite objections by some of the gang’s members.
The kidnap victim was Yossele Leibovitch, a student in the Hebrew Gymnasium in Vilna. His father was a money lender. The kidnapping was done by Abba Vitkin and his assistant Reuven Kantor. The two grabbed Yossele as he left school, bundling him into a peasant cart. The ransom note sent to the family declared: “Money or death.” The kidnappers demanded 15,000 rubles plus gold, diamonds and pearls in return for the boy.
Yossele was held in Vitkin’s house. “The moment it became clear that a child had been kidnapped, all the forces aligned themselves against Gold Flag,” Zalkin says. “The Jewish community, the police ~ everyone cooperated.” A wave of arrests followed. Finally the gang decided that enough was enough and returned the boy to his neighborhood.
That same day the headline of the local paper was “How the kidnapped boy was returned.” The sub-headline, Zalkin says, translating from the Yiddish, was “Yossele Leibovitch’s own story; 12 arrested, including the member of the Capone gang in America; how the child kidnapper was caught.”
The next day the paper’s lead story described how the police reached the kidnappers. The headline of March 1 revealed that “Gold Flag planned to kidnap another child.”
The rival organization to Gold Flag was the “Brothers Society,” the federation of the Jewish thieves in Vilna ~ they even had a secretary who represented the society vis-a-vis the community’s institutions.
”One of the society’s missions was to provide legal assistance to members that were arrested and placed on trial, and to smuggle people who were wanted by the police out of the city. The Brothers Society was known for the original names its members were given ~ such as “Yankele the Pipe,” “Avraham the Anarchist,” “Tall Elinke” and “Arka Moneybags.”