The Jewish detective hero who inspired the young Bashevis Singer
In a memoir of his Warsaw childhood, Singer recalled the newspaper seller who stood on Twarda Street in the city center: “His little stand was full of story-books—Sherlock Holmes, Max Spitzkopf, ‘The Terrible Secrets,’ ‘The Riddle of the Imperial Court,’ ‘The Captive Princess,’ ‘The Bewitched Orphan,’ ‘The Twelve Hundred Robbers.’” For the story-obsessed child, every booklet “had a magnetic attraction,” holding out the promise of “mysteries and insights.”
Singer’s vivid reminiscence reminds us that Yiddish pulp fiction sold in huge quantities from the 1870s to the 1930s. Dismissed by highbrow critics as shund—trashy, lowbrow, crude, tasteless, or sensationalist—these mayse-bikher (storybooks) answered the same need for escapism as America’s dime novels or England’s penny dreadfuls. The cheaply produced storybooks of Singer’s childhood filled young minds with tales of warriors, kings and queens, Biblical and romantic heroes, and—not least—criminals and detectives.
The exploits of super-sleuth Max Spitzkopf made a particularly strong impression on the young Singer. In his autobiography, In My Father’s Court, Singer wrote: “The detective stories seemed like masterpieces to me. A sentence from one of them remains in my memory, a caption under a drawing showing Max Spitzkopf and his assistant, Fuchs, guns in hand, surprising a robber. Spitzkopf is crying out, ‘Hands up, you rogue. We’ve got you covered.’ For years, these naive words ran like music through my mind.”
A few months ago, a tattered volume of Max Spitzkopf stories surfaced at the Yiddish Book Center. It contains the first five Spitzkopf mysteries, each one a complete tale in thirty-two pages. The stories are mostly set in Galicia, the heavily Jewish province on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and each features “Max Spitzkopf, the King of Detectives, the Viennese Sherlock Holmes” and his assistant, Fuchs. A detailed line drawing illustrates each story, and some of the original color covers have also survived, showing Spitzkopf in profile, staring resolutely ahead.
For all their crude plots and cardboard characters, it’s easy to see why these stories appealed. They are packed with incident, quick-fire dialogue, and cliff-hanging chapter endings. As the breathless advertising copy on the back cover tells us: “Time and again, [Spitzkopf] has been in the greatest danger, but each time his razor-sharp mind has saved him!” The same blurb highlights another obvious selling-point: “MAX SPITZKOPF IS A JEW—and he has always taken every opportunity to stand up FOR JEWS. Whenever a Jew has faced some injustice and turned to Spitzkopf for help, he was never disappointed. And this makes Spitzkopf particularly interesting for the Jewish reading public.” [Emphasis in the original.]
These are not just detective stories but tales of Jewish ingenuity featuring an armed Jewish superhero. Spitzkopf rights the wrongs of a world rife with anti-Semitism using his extraordinary powers of deduction (though his revolver sometimes comes in handy).
Fifteen Spitzkopf stories appeared in all. They were published anonymously, but it seems their authorship was an open secret from the beginning. Spitzkopf was the creation of Yoyne (Jonas) Kreppel, a gifted and prolific writer who is only now beginning to receive proper scholarly attention.
Kreppel was born into a middle-class Hasidic family in Drohobycz, Galicia, in 1874. A brilliantly gifted Talmudic prodigy, he was destined for the rabbinate but found his calling as a journalist, editor, civil servant, and public intellectual writing in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, and Polish. In his mid-twenties, he married the daughter of prominent Krakow printer Josef Fischer, whose publishing house issued the Spitzkopf stories around 1908. Kreppel attended the Czernowitz Yiddish language conference in 1908, was active in Zionist politics for the orthodox Agudas Yisroel movement, and edited or published a series of Galician Jewish newspapers. Settling in Vienna around 1914, his main activity for the next three decades was editing a German-Jewish weekly and writing a series of books on Jewish and world politics. However, Kreppel also had a role as advisor on foreign affairs to the Austrian foreign ministry, and at one point almost became Austrian consul in Palestine.
Intriguingly, Kreppel returned to Yiddish pulp fiction years later as a sideline to his main focus on Jewish communal matters. Between 1924 and 1930, he published almost a hundred slim storybooks in four main series: historical tales, Hasidic stories and legends, stories of World War I, and crime fiction. They were issued by Symcha Freund, another leading Galician Jewish publisher/printer, in the same slim format as the Spitzkopf stories. The Jerusalem-based scholar David Schonberg writes that “these booklets, just like the Max Spitzkopf ones, were very cheap and proved extremely popular throughout Poland, selling in the thousands.” Both sets of stories, so popular in their day, are now bibliographic rarities. No major library appears to have a complete run of the 1920s pamphlets, and only two—Yale University and the Medem Library in Paris—have full sets of the Spitzkopf stories.
As a prominent Austrian-Jewish intellectual, Kreppel was an obvious target once Austria united with Hitler’s Germany in 1938. He was rounded up and sent first to Dachau, then to Buchenwald, where he was murdered on July 21, 1940. Kreppel’s remarkable career as a many-sided writer and public figure is only now receiving serious consideration. In a plot twist worthy of a Singer story, Klaus Kreppel, an unrelated German Christian historian, became intrigued by Yoyne Kreppel and has just published the first full biography of this overlooked Jewish man of letters.
Geroybt tsu der shmad (“Kidnapped for Conversion”) is the first Max Spitzkopf story. It opens with a household in turmoil: seventeen-year-old Khane, the adored eldest child of prosperous Galician landowner Menashe Frisch, has disappeared from her room in the middle of the night. Her distraught father calls for Spitzkopf to come at once from Vienna to help find his daughter. In the final chapter, Spitzkopf and his assistant, Fuchs, track Khane’s captors to Krakow; they arrive just in time to save Khane from the clutches of a gang whose members include a local schoolmaster, priest, and nun.
“I only hope we’re not too late!” Spitzkopf thought to himself as he galloped still faster.
At last they arrived at the grand Wawel Castle in the center of Krakow. Suddenly Spitzkopf heard the rattling of a carriage nearby. The two riders sprang into a side street and let it pass. With his sharp eyes, Fuchs recognized this as the same elegant carriage from before. He gave a sign to Spitzkopf.
“Look after the horses!” Spitzkopf shouted to him as the detective leaped off his own with the greatest of speed and sprinted through the surrounding groves until he arrived at the gate of the Felician Sisters’ convent. He barely had time to whip out his revolver before the infamous carriage approached.
“Halt, miscreants!” Spitzkopf commanded. “One move and I’ll shoot!”
Quick as lightning, he flung open the carriage door and illuminated the interior with his flashlight. Inside were the priest, that young fellow we know only too well, and the nun, with an unconscious girl wrapped in a large coarse fabric lying in her lap.
“Ha, you villains!” he bellowed. “I’ve caught you red-handed. I am the detective Max Spitzkopf, and you are all under arrest.”
—Translation by Michael Yashinsky
Translation made possible by and reprinted with permission from Reboot.
Michael Yashinsky is an education and textbook specialist at the Yiddish Book Center. From fall 2018 he will be a lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Michigan. Elissa Sperling is a senior fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, specializing in cataloguing. David Mazower is co-editor of Pakn Treger and the Yiddish Book Center’s bibliographer and editorial director. He writes about Yiddish theater and is a frequent contributor to the Digital Yiddish Theater Project.