Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gangster Jews and the bid to defy weakness

A few weeks ago, I finished reading "Blood Relation," Eric Konigsberg's fascinating account of the mobster life of Uncle Heshy. The author's family was Jewish, so the murdering and racketeering of his uncle, Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg, was sort of frowned upon.

But, then again, Jewish mobsters have always had a taboo appeal -- think Murder Inc., Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.

Barney Frank, a Massachusetts congressman who grew up with Kayo, voices this sentiment.
"We loved the fact that he was one of us. I mean, here's a guy who had -- you know, he wasn't just an accountant like Meyer Lansky. I remember teasing one of your father's cousins about him. She'd get upset, but most of the Jewish kids I knew were sort of worshipful of Kayo."
Anyway, the LA Daily News ran a story today from the Chronicles of Jewish mobsters. Only, this one, written by Tony Castro (Luke Ford's source on the Mayor Villaraigosa marriage split), is about a gangster who survived the Holocaust before getting caught up in organized crime.

"Spielberg! You've got to get me Spielberg!" Paul Gelb slurred as he bit off the words with the insistence of a Hollywood studio head.

"Spielberg has to come here. If he's a good Jew, he'll come here to see me. Do you know if he speaks Yiddish?

"And I need to talk to a rabbi. I'd like that. But a rabbi who speaks Yiddish.

"I need to see both of them before I die, ... and I'm dying."

But then, Gelb, 83, has been dying since he was 15 and was sent to a series of Nazi concentration camps with his family.

He survived the Holocaust, which is why he is so insistent this day on seeing director Steven Spielberg, who has created an archive of living testimony of survivors in the wake of his Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List."

"I'll bet you," Gelb says, "that Spielberg doesn't have a story like mine."

That's because to survive in America, Gelb became involved with the Mafia, running New York strip joints and a money-skimming operation that ultimately landed him in a California federal prison in the 1990s.


For Gelb, the ultimate irony was having survived a Nazi concentration camp to wind up half a century later in a minimum-security federal prison camp in California, where he was inmate 10945-054, according to a federal report.

"There were no bars, no fences there, no gas chambers, no ovens," he says. "Some people tried to compare my experience in a concentration camp and prison, and I told them, `Don't even try to compare it. One was hell on Earth.' Prison wasn't heaven, but I'm not ready to go there yet, anyway!"

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