The Journalist and the Murderer
What’s it like to discover that your great-uncle was a mobster?
Harold “Kayo” Konigsberg is a former thug, loan shark, and mob hit man—and currently a jailed murderer and the dark secret of his law-abiding, upwardly mobile relatives. Eric Konigsberg, the son of an Omaha doctor, went against his family’s wishes and tracked down his great-uncle in a maximum-security prison in Western New York. And there he got to know Harold—his intelligence, his lies, his charisma, his terrifying temper, his observance of the Sabbath and the High Holidays (probably because it gets him a better quality of food), and, ultimately, the cold ugliness at the center of Harold’s being. Three years of jailhouse interviews led to a remarkable 2001 New Yorker article and now a book, Blood Relation—and to a profound understanding of the suffering his Uncle Heshy caused so many people. I was surprised to discover how famous your uncle was. Sidney Zion, Peter Maas, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton all wrote about Harold. I’m from a family where no one’s ever been in the paper. And that my relative is this really bad guy, and he’s being written about by writers I admire, it was incredibly fascinating at first. Peter Maas based King Kong Karpstein, the antagonist of his first novel, Made in America, on Harold Konigsberg. So my first job in New York, I’m working in the office of New York magazine, and I go in the stacks and there it is, right on the cover, “Portrait of a Loan Shark,” by Peter Maas. Inside, there was a model there dressed up as King Kong Karpstein. That was really weird. You say that after the first half of the 20th century, generally speaking Jews left organized crime behind, in pretty much every sense. There were an awful lot of Jews involved in organized crime in the period of immigration, from 1880 to 1920. But by the time Harold was doing what he did, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were not that many Jews involved, or not that many known to be involved. So he was sort of a rarity. For whatever reason, you did not hear a lot about Jewish involvement in organized crime until the 1970s. Some people attribute it to the Six-Day War, when all of the sudden there was great interest in the Jews’ history of violence and aggressiveness. And we got a bunch of books about Jewish involvement in organized crime, and movies—Once Upon a Time in America. After that point, it’s pretty difficult for a Jewish person to grow up in America and not know that there were lots of Jewish gangsters. And yet there still seems to be ongoing interest in the idea of “tough Jews.” Does your book play into that? Hopefully my book plays against it. These Jews were not fighting for freedom; they were not fighting for a homeland for the Jews. They were people who happened to be Jewish who were criminals, who exploited the weak, who exploited or killed hapless people, many—most of whom—were other Jewish people. There’s nothing noble, nothing Jewish about what they did. So it’s definitely nothing that a Jew should take pride in. When you finally found out that your great-uncle Harold was a gangster and in prison, was there a part of you that was proud? There was this thrill of learning something so strange and incongruous and exotic about my family. I can’t tell you how different I feel now. Once I began spending time with him but also talking to people whose lives had been affected and upended by him, I pretty quickly came to feel that it was not romantic or mysterious or anything other than pretty awful. One of the reasons this book took so long was because I found so much of it unsettling, and it was upsetting to think about this person. To an extent it was that much more upsetting to learn that it was this person I was related to. Do you get a lot of questions about this kind of Jewish pride? I am almost always asked by somebody in a manner that typically feels like more of a statement than a question about the appeal, as a Jew, of discovering a tough guy, a violent guy, in my family. Or even about the appeal of the onetime existence of a whole class of Jewish gangsters and murderers—of course, they don’t say “murderers,” but that’s what they were. The people who bring this up with such affection tend to be younger people who grew up in middle-class comfort and may have endured some form of anti-Semitism but not, I’d guess, poverty or oppression. The people of my grandparents’ generation, by and large, seem to understand the horror and pain my grandparents and great-aunts felt watching Harold grow up and turn into such a violent person. Harold was extremely violent, but also kind of seductive… Yeah, but not to the people whose lives were ruined by him. Journalists, defense attorneys, detectives, cops, prosecutors, people who collect rogues for whatever reason—they probably saw him as one of the more interesting notches in their belts. But they weren’t exploited by him. Harold admitted to all these murders, yet the Justice Department wasn’t able to do anything with his confessions. Nothing was done? When he was in prison awaiting trial on extortion charges, he initiated contact with the F.B.I. He began confessing to these F.B.I. agents about these murders, many of which he had committed himself. They suggested the possibility of immunity, but they did not give immunity for what he told them. You’ve got ten murders that I was able to find explicit confessions to from Harold, and another nine or ten he was aware of. These were cases that for whatever reason the government couldn’t or didn’t want to pursue. One they did eventually get him on, and that’s the murder for which he’s serving today. In the book, I began to look into some of these unprosecuted and officially unsolved murders and found that nobody had cared enough to do anything about them. Not even to tell some of the families what had happened? Right. I found loved ones of some of his victims, widows and children and sons and daughters. Some never understood why the Justice Department had never made a case. Some didn’t even know how their loved ones had died or been killed. Some didn’t want to know and didn’t care to pursue it. A couple did, and we tried to find more information. But most of them had no interest in learning more. Regardless of whatever I did or didn’t discover about myself or my family or Harold, it was much more meaningful to see what people outside our family had gone through. Because they had suffered. Their stories really needed to be documented. It must have been hard to show up at these people’s doors. I found it, in an odd way, very gratifying. One person, at the 11th hour, he contacted me; he said he’d been thinking about contacting me for four years since the New Yorker piece that the book came out of, and he had been obsessed with finding out about his father’s death. He’d come across some information through the Freedom of Information Act that referred to my great-uncle, so he contacted me. And I had already written about his father’s death, the torture and killing of this guy. So I shared with him the F.B.I. report where Harold described this murder. Obviously, this man was horrified and saddened, and he was hoping that maybe we could get the government to take up the case again and, on the other hand, felt maybe not, that he had to move on—it wouldn’t bring his father back. I was in his house, and he picked up a framed picture of his father that he had sitting face down on a credenza and said, “Look at this. Samuel Wolkoff was a person. He lived.” He just wanted somebody to acknowledge that. Have you spoken to Harold since he threatened you at your last meeting? I haven’t heard from Harold, which is just fine with me.
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