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Posted in: Feminism, Gender, Psychology & Law, General Jewish Themes

Published on Jun 09, 2006 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for World Jewish Digest

My Body, My Soul


A well-dressed man wearing a fine coat, a top hat and polished shoes spies an impoverished Jewish family in Warsaw. They are starving and seek work of any kind. The man approaches them. He speaks to them softly, in well-turned Yiddish phrases. He and his household need another servant -- would they be interested in hiring out their 12-year-old daughter? She is a beautiful girl, lively, with flushed cheeks and a slender figure. The father hesitates. Who is this man, really? Yet what are the poor man's options? Finally, the father takes the money and hands over his daughter. Perhaps working as a housemaid will improve her life. Perhaps she will even send some money home. Maybe she will meet a rich man in this grand household.

At the end of the 19th and well into the 20th century, this cruel ruse was one way that Jewish pimps duped young Jewish girls into a lifetime of sexual slavery. On the streets of Warsaw and in small shtetls throughout Eastern Europe, Jewish girls and women were abducted by Jewish slave traders who exported them across the oceans to South America and the United States, where they were forced against their will to work as prostitutes in the New World.

This shocking and largely untold story of Jewish prostitution is documented in the pages of "Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas" by Canadian journalist Isabel Vincent. Author of the previous "Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold and the Pursuit of Justice," Vincent's writing style leaves something to be desired -- her material calls out for a Zola or a Balzac -- but her careful and original research, coupled with the moral gravity of the subject, renders the book worthy in every way.

Scholars already know a great deal about prostitution, including Jewish prostitution, circa 1880-1940. Vincent breaks new ground in the English-speaking world by documenting how Jewish pimps trafficked illiterate, starving, Yiddish-speaking Jewish girls, (often as young as 12 years old), into prostitution in Brazil, Argentina and New York City. Vincent cites Portuguese, Spanish and English sources and details the lives of dozens of girls and women who were promised paradise but found hell instead.

Make no mistake, the Jewish men who perpetrated these crimes were not coerced into their thievery. Indeed, they viewed prostitution as a business venture that would make them millions. At its height, the largest of the prostitution cartels, the "Zvi Migdal," owned brothels in Constantinople, Johannesburg, Singapore, Shanghai, and Bombay and throughout North and South America. According to Vincent, at the turn of the 20th century, this cartel earned $50 million a year, servicing Jewish and non-Jewish patrons alike.

Descending on the shtetl, these stylishly dressed men with their soft, manicured hands would often present themselves as "bridegrooms" with thriving hotel or factory businesses in "America." Over and over again, they participated in fake "marriages" ("shtille chuppahs") to child-brides. They promised the girls and their parents an easy way out of agonizing hunger and antisemitism and a chance to earn enough money to support their extended families at home.

Once on board the ship to the Americas, the pimphusband raped and beat ("seasoned") the young virgin to break her spirit. Few escaped. Those who did were returned to their "husbands" by the ship captains, police officers and state officials in the cartel's pocket. The rare escapee was severely punished. The prostitutes worked six to seven days a week, servicing anywhere from 20 to 50 men a day. Many killed themselves.

Why has the South American material remained unknown? First, records of illegal activities are rarely kept. Moreover, the descendants of these women have not been eager to discuss the lives of their prostituted mothers and grandmothers. Vincent spoke to some of these descendants, but many more refused to speak to her. It seems that most of these families decided long ago that their status in a "respectable" community was more important than honoring the memories of their mothers and grandmothers. Finally, important records were destroyed in 1994 when a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed by Hezbollah terrorists funded by Iran.

Still, Vincent documents a miracle. Although these prostituted women were shunned by the Jewish community -- they were excluded from synagogues and Jewish cemeteries -- a good number of these prostitutes created a Jewish community all their own. They founded their own synagogues, chevre kadisha (purification and burial societies) and cemeteries. They purchased Torah scrolls and persuaded Jewish men to lead their services.

Vincent provides us with photographs of the exterior and interior of the prostitute's synagogue in Rio de Janeiro, though it is not entirely clear whether the women knew how to pray in Hebrew or Yiddish. According to Vincent's account, the women celebrated erev Shabbat -- but not necessarily Shabbat. Perhaps such information was hard to come by; perhaps this wasn't Vincent's primary focus.

She also shows us the dedicatory stone (written in Yiddish) at their cemetery in Rio and a photo of the room in which they performed tahara, or purification before burial. Nearly 800 Jewish women are buried in this cemetery, which they founded in 1916.

Most girls and women did not escape or turn to the police -- they were shamed and broken by their ordeal. They also knew that escape was punished by torture and sometimes by murder.

One exception was Rachel Liberman, who had arrived in Argentina in the early 1920's as a "respectable" wife and the mother of two sons. When her immigrant husband suddenly died, her in-laws (who were in the prostitution business) forced her to prostitute herself to support her children. Unlike most women of the time, she struck a deal: if she worked for five years, she would "buy" back her freedom. This is what she did, opening an antique shop with the money she had saved.

But the Jewish Argentine pimps thought Rachel had set a dangerous precedent. They sent goons to destroy her shop and to re-imprison her in a brothel. Rachel fought back. She began working with an honest police officer, Julio Alsogoray. Based on Rachel's testimony, Alsogoray raided brothels, caused some pimps to flee the country and actually jailed some pimps for a short while. None did hard time, and most continued pimping after they were freed. Still, Alsogoray was impressed with Rachel's persistence in the face of danger. "Aren't you afraid?" he asked her (Alsogoray kept careful notes). "You only die once," Rachel said. "I am not backing down."

Another hero, Rebecca Freedman, would go on to found the Society of Truth, an association of Jewish prostitutes in Argentina. She performed tahara. She lit yahrzeit candles for the dead. These women had no one, so they turned to each other.

Another hero, Rebecca Freedman, would go on to found the Society of Truth, an association of Jewish prostitutes in Argentina. She performed tahara. She lit yahrzeit candles for the dead. These women had no one, so they turned to each other.

Unfortunately, not only does white slavery still exist, it's thriving. Today, traffickers promise desperately impoverished Asian and East European girls and women marriage, jobs and an education. They also buy the girls outright from their parents or seduce and kidnap them. By whatever stratagem, once the girls are in their clutches, they are beaten, repeatedly raped and threatened with death if they try to escape. Since the girls don't have documents or passports, much less speak the language of the countries to which they've been transported, they stand very little chance of returning to their homes.

The white slave trade flourishes in the Muslim world, Europe, North and South America—and, surprisingly, in Israel. According to a 2005 Knesset subcommittee report, over the last four years, between 3,000 and 5,000 women, mainly gentiles from the former Soviet Union, were trafficked into Israel to work as prostitutes. They were sold at auctions for as much as $10,000 each and forced to work up to 18 hours a day. Israeli Jewish feminists have been trying to rescue them, and their predecessors, for many years. According to a recent article in the Jerusalem Report, the women trafficked into Israel in 2001 alone generated "an estimated $2 billion turnover for international crime."

How is this still happening in Israel, the Jewish state, in 2006? In my long association with Israeli anti-trafficking feminists, I have heard over and again how police and landowners collude with pimps and traffickers to keep woman in sexual slavery. Oftentimes, Israeli anti-traffickers have told me, police and landlords will trade their silence for sexual favors by the prostituted women.

Israel is under pressure from the United States to crack down on trafficking within its borders, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pledged to put the issue of trafficking at the top of his government's agenda.

Today, the onus is on governmental authorities to police their borders and arrest trafficking criminals. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was often individuals who took the lead in saving prostituted women. Bertha Pappenheim, a wealthy Orthodox Jew who was also known as Freud's patient Anna O, became a feminist crusader against the trafficking of Jewish girls. Pappenheim implored rabbis to stop "turning a blind eye." Most refused to help her. One rabbi told her: "We are of the opinion that it is dangerous to talk so much about the Traffic and to be incessantly proclaiming our sins to the world."

Indeed, in a world of antisemitism and pogroms, where Jews were marked as cheats and blamed for multiple societal ills, Jews may have wanted to deflect attention from the criminal activities of their most disreputable brethren. In short, in their desire for respectability, Jewish communities sacrificed innocent Jewish girls to predatory Jewish pimps. These human sacrifices never saw their parents or siblings again.

But these girls were not wholly abandoned. According to Vincent, in addition to Bertha Pappenheim, in the 1920's Selig Ganopol, a Jewish-Argentine , worked with "Ezras Noschim," an organization that saved nearly a thousand Jewish girls from sexual slavery. The British philanthropist Claude Montefiore also funded anti-trafficking activism, as did a handful of other brave and determined Jews and non- Jews. Feminist volunteers stood on the docks of Europe and the Americas looking for lostlooking girls. They gave them literature written in Yiddish. In rare instances, they were actually able to save a "soul and a body."

Read this book if for no other reason than to learn the names and something of the fates of these extraordinary Jewish women: Klara Adam (who tried to escape and was denounced by her family in Europe); Sophia Chamys (who tried to escape and was buried in a Catholic cemetery); Lola Goskin (who tried to work for herself who was shut down by the police); Klara Hohn (rescued by a sailor); Sally Knopf (raped by her uncle, she escaped, disguised as a man); Lena Meyers (who killed herself ), and Fanny Weinstein (who attempted suicide and tried to expose the pimps).

May they, and their many sisters, rest in peace. And may their memories be for a blessing.


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