Peaky Blinders dared to make Birmingham cool with its stylish depiction of beautiful gangsters who hurt as much as they wounded. Now The King of Warsaw does the same for Polish Jews.
Similarly set in the interwar period, as fascism and socialism clashed to deadly effect, this brilliant Polish gangster series, shown as part of the Walter Presents thread on Channel 4 and All 4, explores the world before the entire community was almost completely and devastatingly wiped out by the Nazis.
It is teeming with life, a lost Yiddish world. This is a world of hoodlums and politics, of religious people and secular, of families with hopes and dreams, disgraces and upsets who a few years later would almost all be sent to the gas chambers. Set in Warsaw in 1937, for both Poles and Jews, in particular, it is a glimpse into an almost forgotten world when a third of the entire city was Jewish.
This was a rich centre of Jewish life and it feels special to see it finally depicted on screen — a time when the Nazis were across the border and just a shadow of a threat.
“A lot of young people who watched the show told me how surprised they were to discover the Jewish presence in pre-war Warsaw,” says Michal Zurawski who plays the lead character Jacub Shapiro, a boxer and a gangster who climbs the dangerous rungs of the criminal underworld hierarchy. “For the youngsters who only live in the here and now, the story of Shapiro is often a shocking one. We tend to erase unwanted history from public spaces, we tear down the monuments.
“But whatever happened is a part of history even though there are no traces. It is important to preserve the history, the memory and to educate the young."
The series is based on the best-selling book by Szczepan (pronounced Stephen) Twardoch who came across the story of a Jewish gangster leader called Tata Tasienko (full name Lukasz Siemiatkowski) in pre-war Warsaw while researching another of his novels. Tata was a former First World War hero, a committed socialist and former politician who was also known as the “Al Capone of Warsaw”.
“I don’t actually have any connections in Warsaw but I was really interested in this story I discovered,” says Twardoch. “Tata was deep in the trade unions but he also had this strange multinational gang doing racketeering, mainly focused the markets in Warsaw.”
For the character of Jacub, he merged the real-life story of Tata with that of another famous pre-war Jew called Szapsel Rotholc, a champion flyweight boxer who won medals for Poland around the world and was regarded as a hero to the community in Warsaw.
The result is the opposite of the derided idea of the weak Jew — this is a guy who fights, who kills, but retains his inner Jewishness and is therefore continuously conflicted. The series starts just before Jacub has his last fight. Warsaw is excited about the forthcoming bout but Jacub is concentrating on his job as enforcer to head gangster Buddy Kaplica, a well-connected socialist who also has no compunctions about resorting to murder if his dues are not paid.
Jacub’s competition and his enemy within Buddy’s organisation is a sadistic antisemitic German called The Doctor. Meanwhile, Warsaw is teeming with intrigue as Polish fascists become ever more powerful and their battles with Buddy’s socialists become more dangerous. Jacub will be fighting one of the fascists in the ring.
Meanwhile, forced by Buddy to kill a religious Jew who cannot repay his loans, Jacub, who is married with two young sons, decides to take the man’s Yeshivah-educated teenage son under his wing and teach him about the ways of the underworld. Is this a mistake?
For Zurawski whose grandfather was Jewish but hid as a Catholic for almost all of his life, admitting to his past only when the actor was a teenager, taking the role was personal. “From the perspective of a Polish guy, living in the 21st century and having a Jewish background, it was a pleasure to play Jakub Shapiro and punch right-wing Poles in the face,” says the charismatic actor. “He was a real tough man, a boxer, a charmer who can have any woman he desires and can do anything he wants. He is a gangster but he still has a Jewish soul and struggles to find that place where he feels comfortable with his heritage.”
Twardoch, who was also a writer and a producer on the TV show, admits at first he had misgivings about plunging deep into a Jewish world when he had no background in it. But Jewish friends encouraged and helped him with his research. He also drew on his own background as the member of a minority — he has Silesian heritage which means he is Polish but not the same as other Poles.
“I had my doubts about doing it but I got a lot of help to make sure it was done as sensitively as possible,” he says. “I have the experience of being a member of an ethnic minority and of switching codes and languages between Silesian and Polish, much as the Polish Jews switched between Yiddish, Polish and Russian. When you speak to people in a different language, it is like a different part of yourself; many of us have complicated identities.”
Before put pen to paper he started reading three newspapers a day to give him an idea of what life was like at that time. “I had a Jewish newspaper, a popular pro government one and a Polish right wing and antisemitic one,” he recalls. “I read them next to each other, day by day, two issues a day — morning and evening — to get an understanding of what life was like.
“As well as the stories, what interested me were the adverts. They give you a great insight into what people wanted, what they needed, what was popular and unpopular. I also had to dig deep into Jewish spiritual life by talking to my Jewish friends and reading a lot.
“I also spent a lot of time with a professor of Yiddish to make sure that was perfect. There are subtle differences between the Yiddish that was spoken in Warsaw and how it was spoken further East. Before we started filming, all of our actors who play Jewish characters started learning Yiddish and they also had a crash course on Jewish culture and religion. Quite a few of our secondary actors are Jewish so they helped to make it as authentic as possible.’
While the book and the series are mainly a glamorous and violent affair it doesn’t shirk away from the grim antisemitism Jacub and the other Jewish characters faced — even their friends call them ‘kike’.
The book — Krol which means King in Polish — was Twardoch’s most popular book and he brought out a sequel, called Kingdom, which followed the characters after the Nazi invasion. For the real-life characters Jacub was based on, it was a complicated story. Rotholc the boxer became a policeman in the ghetto where he was forced to make some tough decision. After the Warsaw Ghetto uprising he was sent to a work camp inside Germany. His wife was murdered but their son was hidden by a Polish Catholic family and survived.
After the war he was accused by the Warsaw Jewish community of collaboration. He was charged with beating some ghetto residents but he was also said to have saved the head of the Jewish resistance from being deported to a death camp. He ended up moving to Canada with his son. The gangster Tata, meanwhile, became part of the Polish underground but was caught and sent to a work camp where he caught typhus and died in 1944.
Twardoch ‘s books and the series came out as the idea of Polish complicity in the Holocaust became a political hot potato. In 2018 the country passed legislation outlawing discussion of Polish responsibility in the Holocaust. But he says these things have to be talked about.
“There were Polish fascists and in my second novel I’ve tried to describe what some of the Polish people did to the Jews during the war,” he says.
“It is still a controversial subject and it shouldn’t be because it is part of Polish history and we have to deal with. Like British people have to deal with their colonial past, and the Belgians with what they did in the Congo and obviously the Germans in the Shoah.
“The people who made this new law are right wing morons and it remains a discussion I still want to have. My books are best sellers in Poland, I write for Polish and German newspapers and, I’m pleased to say, no one is trying to silence me. I wouldn’t let them.”
The King of Warsaw is available on All 4 on Friday May 13 and starts on Channel 4 on May 15 at 11pm.