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Smugglers: A Novel in Three Parts

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Smugglers: A Novel in Three Parts

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A Novel in Three Parts
By Oyzer Warshawsky
Translated by Golda Werman
Gefen Publishing House, 2008, 234 pages.
ISBN: 978-965-229-426-5

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 26, 2009

Readers familiar with the best Yiddish literature, such as Sholem Aleichem's famous tales of Shtetl life, especially the story made into a play and film and called Fiddler on a Roof, have come to expect that the Jews that are portrayed in this literature are God fearing and observant naifs, dedicated to "tradition" and doing nothing really wrong. Warshawsky's Yiddish novel goes beyond this mold, and as translated by Golda Werman, it is a gripping and charming tale of Jews who, although as observant as the Fiddler Jews, are also appealing criminals, determined to save themselves from starvation by breaking the restrictive law of the German occupiers of their land.

The Jews are pitiful yet humorous persons living in Poland during the First World War, during the period of German persecutions. They are smugglers who earn a modest livelihood by buying small quantities of food and smuggling them into starving Warsaw. Some get money by brewing illegal brandy.

The Germans forbid both activities. They place guards at random sites on the road to Warsaw to confiscate the goods. Some soldiers follow the rules and seize everything. Most are interested in bribes.

The smugglers need to fool the armed German guards. They solve their dilemma by the clever device of placing non-Jewish prostitutes on their wagons. The girls distract the guards as planned. But the ploy produces a new problem for their wives and for the men themselves, for the men are unaccustomed to deal with seductive non-Jewish girls. "Something has suddenly changed" in the Shtetl! our author exclaims.

Warshawsky portrays his many characters - Jews, Germans and prostitutes - in telling detail, with pathos and arresting drama. His characters are humorous and tragic, like the woman who is so overwhelmed by the well-dressed German seeking her distilled brandy that she brings him a wet and dirty chair to sit on, and like the voluptuous woman who saves her smuggled articles from German confiscation by sleeping with the guard, and the father who sends his daughters to the German commandant to entice the officer to save him.

The novel is generally written in the present tense - as in, "Pantel the wagon driver stretches out" - giving the reader a sense of being present during the drama. It is written in three parts, like the three developing disclosures in the three acts in a play. The tale is suffused with sex and the drinking of brandy; the first for pure enjoyment; the second for escape from the misery and degradation of life.

Pantel's lust is the most striking example of sex: "He is panting for her, burning, as if a hot iron rod had been placed on his stomach. He goes out into the fresh air, but it doesn't help - he is even more uncomfortable, even hotter with desire. Finally he goes into the stall and mounts the stallion. He stands up and sits down, stands up and sits down until he feels he is about to faint. Finally he stops. His eyes are filled with tears and he almost falls off the horse."

Another example is Mendel, Pantel's religious and nave son, who is overcome with love for the prostitute Natasha. "Then she takes his hand in hers and gently strokes it. Mendel does not understand - is this the Natasha from his past or is this someone else, someone new to him? The dreamy look in her blue eyes makes him feel this. It's as if he is with a nice girl, from a good rabbinical family."

Still another is the time that Berel is seduced by the priest to convert to Christianity by using a Christian girl: "She put his hand inside her bosom and sat on his lap. The long and the short of it is that he went to the priest." But this is only the beginning of this episode. The reader of Smugglers will want to hear how Berel acts when sobered by marriage to this girl.

Oyzer Warshawsky (1898-1944) was born in Poland and wrote this novel in 1920 when he was only twenty-one. It was an instant best seller. Golda Werman, who translated it, is a Milton scholar, the author of Milton and Midrash, and has translated many other Yiddish works. Warshawsky was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1944, but his novel in the magnificent Werman translation lives on to be enjoyed today and tomorrow as well.

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on and on His website is

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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