The Story of an Orthodox Jew who was sentenced to death three times in the early 1900s in Russia

            June 2012    
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My Grandfather in his Russian army uniform


The Accidental Anarchist: From the Diaries of Jacob Marateck

By Bryna Kranzler

This is an excerpt from the book The Accidental Anarchist the true story of Jacob Marateck, an Orthodox Jew who was sentenced to death three times in the early 1900s in Russia -- and lived to tell about it. He also happened to have been the author's grandfather.

The “King of Thieves”

(excerpted from The Accidental Anarchist by Bryna Kranzler)


Still short of sunrise, under a cloud of fog as thick as snow, our barge inched away from the dock. With a consumptive cough, the engine pushed us upriver, or possibly downriver – there was no way to tell, either by the flow of the water’s oily skin or by the shoreline that remained invisible.

I asked a crewman where we were being taken. His shrug could have meant either that he didn’t know or didn’t feel it was worth his effort to tell me.

A more talkative crew member let on that, in the early days of steam, our particular barge had carried coal for the Imperial Navy. Having outlived its seaworthiness, it was renamed, “Little Russia,” and set to earning its upkeep for a few more voyages. Although it was no longer trusted to carry coal, it was still healthy enough to haul lower-value cargo, such as prisoners, on the first installment of their trek to Siberia.

That is, he whispered with a foolish grin, until the barge crumbled under our feet and was sucked down into the icy black waters. Although the crew treaded the same rotted decks as us, they seemed unaware or unconcerned that they were doomed to go under with the rest of us. Or perhaps they were more optimistic about their chances for survival as they weren’t weighted down by thirty pounds of chain.

In the evening, as I elbowed my way toward the railing, hoping to bask in a last glimpse of the expiring sun, I found myself beside a man who, even in a metropolis like Warsaw, would have stood out in any crowd. Tall, broad shouldered, and with penetrating eyes that appeared to look down from a great height, he had managed, even in that welter of filthy and ragged convicts, to remain dressed and groomed like someone about to preside over a court of law or lecture at a University.

In the soiled half-light, his face wore an amused kind of serenity, the look of someone who might have joined our transport purely as a lark, or as a scholarly observer of our misery, collecting anecdotes with which to regale his colleagues tomorrow over cigars and wine. He struck me as a man who could, any time he chose, order our barge to halt and put out its gangplank so he could board a waiting troika [1] that, piled high with fur blankets, would whisk him back to his mansion in Petersburg, or even Vienna.

I spent hours of my worthless time trying to guess what a person of such quality was doing amongst riff-raff like us. He looked far too shrewd and self-assured to be a revolutionary. And if he was, indeed, a criminal, where in all the Russias had there been a policeman smart enough to capture him?

While the rest of us fell upon the hot, slime-coated cauldrons of cabbage soup or kasha with our tin bowls and grimy bare hands, I never saw him shove or be shoved, curse or be cursed. Yet by some effortless authority, he never failed to come away with a full bowl while the food was still hot, and without a sleek, red hair out of place. Truly a man born for leadership.

I spent several days covertly studying him like some rare specimen. In time, I felt his steady gaze pin me, too. I begin to think of him as the Prophet Elijah, or one of the legendary “Thirty-Six”[2] mystical beings known to appear incognito, from time to time, to comfort or rescue some deserving soul. 

At other times, fascinated by the copper gleam of his hair and beard, I saw him as a Satanic emissary who walked the earth in one seductive guise or another, the better to plot the downfall of some unsuspecting innocent. Such as myself.

I finally made his acquaintance under unusual circumstances. Among us was a fiery young revolutionary I had known in Warsaw, a Russian named Volodya whose iron fists he never hesitated to use in a good cause.

One day, one of the less appetizing of our legitimate criminals suggested that Volodya, “like all revolutionaries,” was “no better than a damned Jew.” And Volodya, too simple-hearted to recognize the accusation as a compliment, unleashed his fist on the ruffian with such force that the sound was heard at the opposite end of the deck.

I was surprised to see the other criminals take Volodya’s little burst of temper with apparent good grace. But the following morning, no matter where I looked, there was no sign of my revolutionary comrade. After a while, someone advised me to stop searching because, during the night, Volodya had been quietly surrounded by half a dozen shadowy men, one of whom inserted a knife between his ribs while another shoved a rag into his mouth. His body had been gently heaved over the side. If a guard or a member of the ship’s crew heard the muffled splash, none had been foolhardy enough to wake the captain and suggest that he stop the boat to investigate.

With a little shiver of prudence, I decided that, while aboard this floating prison, I would try to avoid fights, at least until I was better acquainted with my fellow travelers and knew who was armed and who, if anyone, would be prepared to back me in a brawl to the death.

That evening, as I dozed under the shabby moonlight, the subject of my speculations materialized. He bent over so close to me that, after blinking the sleep out of my eyes, I could almost count each silken hair in his fine, cavalry mustache and lovingly trimmed beard. Meanwhile, his spotless vest seemed to have retained the odors of pungent Cologne water and tropical cigars. I recalled thinking that this was surely no prisoner, unless he was a criminal so wealthy that he could even buy an aura of respectability.

“ Apparently, it is not wise in a place like this to make enemies,” he said.

I was stunned by the banality of his remark, although he had only echoed my own thoughts. Could his words have masked layers of meaning that I was too drowsy to appreciate? His voice had a curiously nasal, unphilosophical quality to it. He sounded like a man so abruptly stripped of his worldly authority that he had not yet found a new tone in which to address his inferiors.

All I could think of replying was, “If you’re a convict, I’m Count Pototzky.”[3] He nodded modestly, and I could almost hear him blush.

“ I suppose I am a little different than the others.” With a touch of kindly authority in his voice, he asked, “Is there anything I can help you obtain? A loaf of bread, a warmer coat, a pair of boots?”

I considered his offer as solemnly as I did any other bad joke. “You own a department store below deck?”

He only smiled. “You mistrust me. In your place, so would I. But you may take my word for it; I am a criminal like you.” That avowal was invested with all the humility that only a truly great man could have summoned. “In fact, I have far more cause than you to be here.”

Making no effort to defend my well-earned right to be on a Siberia-bound transport, I waited for him to explain.

“ A man gets lonely all by himself,” he confided, as though pressed to justify taking up with a non-entity like me. I had already noticed that he was not on speaking terms with anyone on board.

“ Even with money?”

“ I don’t buy friendship,” he said scornfully. “As you should know, money is not an unmixed blessing among men who would slit your throat for the nails in your boots.”

I controlled my urge to ask why, then, he allowed himself to look so conspicuous, or how he expected to buy me such a costly item as a warm overcoat without exposing at least some fraction of his wealth.

“ I took you to be a man of some learning,” he said, “as am I.”

This struck me as curious coming from the mouth of a criminal, however distinguished he was. Only the tilt of his homburg and the elaborate knot in his cravat detracted from his aspect of professorial wisdom.

But ‘learning,’ where I came from, had only one meaning: the study of serious subjects like the Talmud and its commentaries, not the cluttering of one’s mind with the kind of paltry, secular information acquired at a university.

Before I could ask what he meant, or confess that my formal education of both kinds stopped before I turned thirteen, he demanded with a flare of contempt, “What have I in common with them? Murderers, drunkards, wife-beaters, wild-eyed revolutionaries?”

I was both amused and incensed at the way he lumped my social activism with the brutish crimes of violent gangsters and assassins.

Not without a little jab of sarcasm, I inquired, “Then what kind of misunderstanding brought you here, brother?”

I felt ashamed the moment the words left my mouth. It was not sort of question one asked of a new acquaintance, especially in a place like this. Not only on social grounds, but with our poor country liberally infested with Czarist spies, how could I be certain that he was not one of them?

My new friend, however, was not offended. “A bit of bad luck,” he said, as offhandedly as an English lord witnessing his yacht go down in a storm. “Some swine turned me in.”

At this, he smiled and granted me the knowledge of his name. (Out of respect for any descendants he may have, let us call him ‘Pyavka.’) I recognized it, at once, from all the months I spent submerged in Warsaw’s underworld, as that of the man respectfully known in certain sections of that great city as “The King of Thieves.”

Just one example of his renown: Some years back, the saintly Amshinover[4] Rebbe had come on one of his rare visits to Warsaw. During the few steps he took between the railroad station and a waiting drozhky, some insolent thief stole his fur-lined coat right off his back. The crime had shocked even a city as hardened to villainy as Warsaw. What’s more, it had been perpetrated in bitterest mid-winter so that the Rebbe’s hosts were justly concerned not only for his health but his very life.

At the synagogue the following morning, the Rebbe preached so powerfully that the very walls were said to have glistened with tears. But as it was Shabbos, the rabbi had forbidden the board to discuss, or even think about, worldly matters until after sundown. The instant Shabbos ended, the board went, as a body, to call upon “The King of Thieves” to plead with him to intercede in a crime that had, after all, taken place in his jurisdiction.

Since criminals were assumed to love money at least as much as did bureaucrats and policemen, the delegation had been authorized to offer a 100-ruble reward for the return of the coat, no questions asked.

Unfortunately, the board happened to intrude upon the King’s palatial home at the very hour he was giving a dinner party for some of his distinguished friends. Worse yet, these included several high Polish officials and even – the Devil take them – a couple of Russian officers in glittering dress uniform, none of whom a Warsaw Jew would lightly disturb at his pleasures.

But the moment the board’s spokesman stuttered out the reason for the intrusion, Pyavka excused himself from his astonished guests, without whose tolerance he could not have reigned for even an hour. He led the intruders into his paneled study, carefully closed the door, passed around a box of cigars and sat down to listen to every known detail of the outrage. He then instructed the delegation to go back and tell the Rebbe not to worry. Not only would he, Pyavka, exert his best efforts to recover the stolen coat, but he also all but guaranteed its return before the rabbi needed to leave the following dawn.

The King was as good as his word. As for the 100-ruble reward, he ordered that it be given to a charity of the Rebbe’s choice.

No doubt, you will have suspected that the Rebbe’s warm overcoat had been hanging in Pyavka’s cupboard, all along. The thought had occurred to me, as well. Nevertheless, in my present circumstances, the very idea of meeting this living legend left me as awed as a modern American boy who’d been granted an audience with Al Capone.

“ And you,” Pyavka demanded with a lordly wink. “What sort of thievery did they get you for?”

It surprised me that he had not instantly realized that I was not a member of his odious profession. I also didn’t take well to his patronizing tone. But he awaited my answer with such genuine benevolence that I hadn’t the heart to disappoint him. Even less did I want to endanger our still-green friendship by confessing that I was there precisely for certain types of activities that would, if successful, put an end to parasites like Pyavka and his high-born Russian protectors.

So I made up a story about how I had recently met a beautiful girl from a fine family, and under her tender influence had forsworn my thievish ways. But, alas, my past had caught up with me. An informer who had seen me in a coffee house with my fiancée summoned a policeman. As I carried a revolver, I could have saved myself by putting a bullet through the arresting officer’s heart. But I simply could not commit such a cold-blooded act before the eyes of this very pure and noble creature. Thus, I ended up clapped in irons while she looked on, her face streaming with maidenly pity. And now who knew if I would ever see her again?

I was so moved by my own recital, not only did I have tears in my eyes, but if you had handed me pencil I could have drawn a perfect likeness of the girl.

Pyavka, for his part, was so affected that he encircled my shoulders with his arm and declared, “Soon you will be reunited with her. You have my word. Why do I say this? Because at the first opportunity I intend to escape.”

I didn’t have time to react to his ludicrous statement because he continued directly: “Before taking you into my confidence, I spent several days observing you. I wanted to be certain you were one of us and not some fool of a political firebrand. But I judged by your eyes that you were far too intelligent to be anything but a thief.”

I acknowledged the compliment and awaited further revelations. Not that I believed, for a moment, he had the slightest chance of escaping. Granted, Russian guards were not famous for their hatred of money. But rather than take a mere portion of Pyavka’s wealth and let him run away, why not simply kill him and take it all?

“ And I have decided to take you with me.” Pyavka looked deeply into my eyes, and I exerted myself to make a proper show of gratitude for his preposterous offer. I wanted to hear more, if only to keep alive some spark of hope in my own heart. It also pleased me to be able, as the greater realist, to feel superior to him in something.

But as though he had already said too much, Pyavka volunteered nothing further. Instead, he solemnly began to reminisce about the tangled motives that compelled him, him, the brilliant son of a fine Jewish family, to take up his perilous and unconventional trade.

As I might have known, he viewed himself as anything but a common thief. What he saw in the glittering mirror of his self-esteem was a social reformer, a zealot who daily risked his freedom and reputation, indeed his very life, in order to redistribute other men’s ill-gotten wealth. “I am what the English call a ‘Robin Hood.’”

Moreover, he had convinced himself that it was he, and not the Bundists or Socialists or other such hollow-headed rabble, who was the true revolutionary, treading, until his cruel downfall, in the very footsteps of the great Hebrew prophets.

In the face of such impregnable delusion, there was little to do but keep silent.

[1]    Russian: Carriage or sled drawn by three horses

[2]    According to the gemara (rabbinical commentaries on the Talmud), in every generation there are 36 individuals who greet the Divine’s presence daily. Later literature suggests that they sustain the world.

[3]    I have come across two possible Pototskys (also spelled Potocki) to whom this might refer: Count Valentin Potocki, an 18th century Polish nobleman, renounced Catholicism and converted to Judaism. For this heresy, he was burned at the stake in 1749, though it is unclear whether this story is factual or legend. Alternatively, this may be a reference to Count Felix Pototsky, who was one of the richest men of the 18th century. He is remembered for having built Sofiyivka Park in Uman, Ukraine, in honor of his wife, Sofia of Greece. (It is unclear whether Valentin and Felix were related). Although my grandfather might have been aware of both of these individuals’ by reputation, the context of the comment above suggests that he was referring to Felix Pototsky.

[4]    Pertaining to the Hasidic dynasty originating in Mszczonów, Poland; Amshinover takes its name from the Yiddish name for the town of  Mszczonów

The book is based on the diaries that my grandfather began keeping in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War. In his diaries, my grandfather documented the many ways that the Czar (Nicholas II) had let down his own people, as well as illustrated what life was like for Jews in the Russian-occupied territories at a time when anti-Semitism was the official government policy. Despite hardships, including poverty, starvation, pogroms and war, my grandfather maintained his sense of humor and optimism, and those traits were what helped him survive.

In the chapter above that is excerpted from the book, my grandfather introduces Warsaw's self-proclaimed "King of Thieves" and the story of the Amshinover Rebbe's missing overcoat.

The Accidental Anarchist is available at on, and better bookstores


from the June 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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