Hirsh Pinyas: A Skala Gangster

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In 1978, a woman named Pat Thaler was interviewed for an article about family history and genealogy. Her great-grandfather, Yisroel Edelstein, had lived in the town of Skala, The author did a bit of investigating and discovered that Yisroel Edelstein had been a far more colorful character than his great-granddaughter ever had suspected.

Yisroel Edelstein had not been the typical impoverished, hard-working Jew of shtetl lore. Instead, under the alias Hirsh Pinyas, he had been the leader of an infamous gang of Gentile thieves. He did, however, pay homage to his Jewish heritage by never carrying out any of his illegal activities on the Sabbath.

The article subsequently published quoted a Skala emigré who said: "This gang which he led was known to steal money and jewelry from rich Polish noblemen and give what they stole to the poor." The emigré described Hirsh Pinyas as "a Robin Hood figure."

“Ha!,” another Skala oldster said when told this story. “I knew Hirsh Pinyas in the old days. Some Robin Hood! He stole from the rich and he kept it for himself. He ended up in jail.”

Yisroel Edelstein's descendants believed that he had made aliyah to Palestine, where he had died; but that probably was a genteel way of concealing the more lurid truth. The story of Hirsh Pinyas, as recounted by Skala's beloved writer Chone Gottesfeld, confirms that the gangster eventually was incarcerated. Gottesfeld also noted that Hirsh Pinyas was killed by prison guards while trying to escape.

In his more commonplace incarnation as Yisroel Edelstein, Pat Thaler's colorful great-grandfather was said to have consulted a matchmaker in another town and to have contracted a marriage for his daughter with the son of a man named Yoel Koch. The two young people had a son named Leib, who arrived in New York on July 15, 1909, aboard the SS Cleveland. In 1919, Leib married a woman named Yetta. They had three children, one of whom was Pat Thaler, the woman who was interviewed for the magazine article.  One of their sons was Yidl Itsik, known to the world as Edward I. Koch, became the mayor of the City of New York.
Mayor Ed Koch

Click here for the October 29, 1979 New York magazine article "Hizzoner's Root" by Arthur Kurzweil.


Gottesfeld, Chone, Vos Ich Gedenk fun Mein Lebn
Kurzweil, Arthur, “Hizzoner's Roots,” New York Magazine, Vol. 12, pp. 46-48 (October 29, 1979).

Text copyrighted by Helene Kenvin
This page created by Max Heffler
Updated Oct 12, 2017. © Copyright 2005 Skala Research Group. All Rights Reserved.