Case of The Zwi Migdal Society
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sao Paulo, Brazil
New York City, NY
and South Africa, India, China
This page is dedicated in the memory of Sophia Chamys, Rebecca Freedman, Rachel Liberman, and the thousands of other women who were obducted and forced into prostution by the Zwi Migdal Society. According to reports there were members of the Society who were rabbis.
Thousands of naive, impoverished Jewish girls from eastern Europe were sold by Jewish mobsters into sexual slavery. Originally believing they were leaving their homes to get married. Most of these women were from poor families, their parents hoping for a better life for their daughters, were shipped off to various locations. This kidnapping, rape and forced prostitution of young Jewish women lasted from the end of the 1860s until the start of the Second World War.
This hugely profitable (annual revenues of $50 million in the 1890s) commerce in flesh was operated by the Zwi Migdal, a criminal association It was centred in Buenos Aires, with branch offices in several locations in Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; New York City, NY; Warsaw, Poland; South Africa; India; and China.
The first boatload of young Jewish women arrived in Brazil in 1867; by 1913, there were 431 brothels in downtown Rio alone.
Three women --largely illiterate, bitterly poor--banded together to form their own benevolent society: the Chesed Shel Ermess, or Society of Truth. At the forefront were Sophia Chamys, Rachel Liberman and Rebecca Freedman, who also managed to get to a police station, and provide testimony which helped an honest cop destroy the Zwi Migdal in Argentina in the 1930s.
Sophia Chamys - was 13 when her father arranged her marriage to a well-dressed stranger from Lodz. She died at the young age of 18. Sophia's "husband" was, in fact, a wheeler-dealer in an international prostitution ring - Zwi Migdal. Chamys ended up, locked in a whorehouse, despised and shunned by the more respectable members of the city's Jewish community, which refused even to give the prostitutes proper burials.
Rebecca Freedman - became their leader (the women called her their queen) and made it her mission to perform the sacred tahara ceremony of washing the dead. Deeply religious, she died in either 1984 or 1986, at the age of 103.She was last president of the Society of Truth.
Rachel Liberman - more information needed on this hero.
THE POLACAS ("POLISH WOMEN" in Portuguese) first organized in 1906, in Rio de Janeiro, setting up the Jewish Association for Charity, Burial and Religion (ABFRI). Their goals, they wrote in the charter, were: "To set up a synagogue, and there practice all the ceremonies of the Jewish religion. To grant sick members in need of treatment outside the city a third-class train ticket and three pounds sterling. To grant members a third-class funeral." In its heyday, the organization existed in several cities, and several rabbis, all since deceased, were in its employ.
Disclaimer: Inclusion in this website does not constitute a recommendation or endorsement. Individuals must decide for themselves if the resources meet their own personal needs.
Table of Contents:
The Awareness Center's Brochure
Prostitution/Trafficking in Jewish Communities
History of Prostitution: Jewish Communities - Wild West
Rabbis, Cantors and Other Trusted Officials
Offenders: Problems Our Parents Wouldn't Speak Of
Recidivism of Sex Offenders (U.S. Department of Justice: Center for Sex Offender Management)
Policies Addressing Victimization and Offenders
International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies - Cemetery Project - November 24, 2005
Avellaneda Cemetery: the plot for the "Zwi Migdal" in Avellaneda is reported to be semi-destroyed. [October 2003] The Zvi Migdal was an organized crime organization in Argentina in the early 20th century. This cemetery plot was for the women who were lured from central Europe and forced into prostitution.
Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team
Tumbas Anonimas: Informe sobre la Identificación de Restos de Víctimas de la Represión Ilegal, 1992, (in Spanish). ["Anonymous Graves: Report on Identification of Remains of Victims of Illegal Repression"]
Anonymous Graves tells the story of the repression in Argentina beginning in 1975, the work of Dr. Clyde Snow on some of the early cases of disappearance, as well as the formation and work of the EAAF from its inception in 1984 through 1991. The book also discusses the evolution of the team's methods of investigation, exhumation and identification and outcomes of their work.
Mauricio Cohen Salama, Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team: Anonymous Graves: Report on Identification of Remains of Victims of Illegal Repression. Catalogos Editora: Buenos Aires, 1992.
To order a copy of the book (in Spanish), please contact email@example.com.
EAAF team members exhuming a mass grave in sector 134 of the Avellaneda Cemetery in Buenos Aires Province, Argentina in 1988. Photo: Mercedes Doretti.
Jewish Library Lost in Truck Bomb Blast
By James Brooke
The New York Times - August 2 1994
The New Orleans Times-Picayune
Yiddish and Hebrew books, salvaged from the ashes of European synagogues and libraries burned by the Nazis, were secretly shipped during World War II to faraway South America for safekeeping.
Now, half a century later, many of these works - and a major part of the largest Judaica library in Latin America - have been obliterated by the truck bomb that leveled the Jewish community center here.
"We are following the historical route of the Jewish people," Samuel Rollansky, the library's founder, who is 92 and almost blind, said on Thursday. "Our history is burned without even a war. We are witnessing an act of Inquisition."
Immediately after the July 18 truck bombing, Argentine Jews concentrated their efforts on rescuing survivors, treating the 236 wounded and burying the nearly 100 dead.
Now, they are assessing the cultural impact of the leveling of a building that for 50 years housed the cultural center for Argentina's 300,000 Jews, a population second in the Americas only to that of the United States.
With roughly half of the 75,000-volume library destroyed and about half of the historical archives lost, the losses span the century of the Jewish presence in Argentina - and more.
Some pieces - like two Torahs from the 17th century and 18th centuries - are irreplaceable.
"We lost about 200 one-of-a-kind, rare books," said Moshe Korin, president of the library association known as IWO, the Yiddish initials for Jewish Scientific Institute. Some of the hand-written volumes dated to 17th-century Eastern Europe, he said, adding: "These were some of the first books written in the Yiddish language."
Closer to home, the bomb destroyed founding acts and bills of land sale for about half of 50 Jewish agricultural colonies that were formed in Argentina in the late 19th century.
Known as "the Jewish gauchos," these colonists had fled pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe to settle in Argentina's interior. Only about 10 agricultural cooperatives survive today.
"When the colonies closed, they usually sent their records to our historical archive," said Korin, a historian. Rain, dust, and the violence of the building collapse destroyed an oral history archive that contained tape recorded interviews with pioneer colonists.
The Buenos Aires archives had also preserved for later generations the artistic tapestry of early-20th-century urban Jewish life here - phonograph records of Jewish classical musicians and tango artists; paintings by a World War I-era painter, Mauricio Mincokvsky, and posters and programs from Buenos Aires' now-vanished Yiddish theater. With winter coming to the Southern Hemisphere in June, Yiddish actors and troupes used to rotate their seasons between here and New York, which had the other large American Yiddish audience in the 1920s.
"All the Yiddish theater stars played in Buenos Aires when there was no theater in New York," recalled Isidiro Aizenberg, a New York City rabbi, who attended Yiddish plays in Buenos Aires as a child. "After Israel and New York, Buenos Aires had the largest repository of Yiddish books in the world."
Archives documenting the sadder side of 20th-century Jewish life in Argentina are also presumed destroyed.
These include files that documented "Semana Tragica," a week in 1917 when anti-Semitic mobs rampaged through the Jewish quarter, looting shops and beating Jews. Another file documented Jewish resistance to the Zwi Migdal, a Jewish crime syndicate that lured impoverished young Jewish women from Eastern Europe into prostitution in Argentina and Brazil. Argentine Jews refused to bury the criminals in Jewish cemeteries here, and organized pickets to bar them from entering synagogues and Yiddish theaters.
A collection of letters from Jews desperate to leave Germany and Eastern Europe written from 1936 to 1939 was also destroyed. "By reading the letters, you could see that the Jews sensed what was coming, and they asked to come here," Korin said.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Rollansky, then a 37-year-old editor of this city's Yiddish daily newspaper, signed a rental lease for a building to house the new Jewish cultural center.
"The day the Nazis threw the first bombs on Warsaw, I signed a contract on a 10-room house," Rollansky recalled, briefly losing his composure at the memory of the destruction of his native Warsaw.
The library grew quickly, with some of the most precious donations being sent to escape a Europe lost under clouds of war. Soon, the library was the second largest of its kind in the Americas, with its sister library, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, in New York.
For Rollansky, who helped found the IWO library here in 1927, reconstruction will fall to younger generations.
"The written records are gone, but the memories remain," said Ezra Zeitune, a 62-year-old Jew. "It is another chapter in Jewish history."
Meideles of the Night
by Jayme Brener
The Jerusalem Report - December 12, 1996
The first boatload of young Jewish prostitutes arrived in Brazil in 1867; by 1913, there were 431 brothels in downtown Rio alone. Theirs was a well-preserved secret. Not anymore.
IN THE HEART OF THE TREE-lined and well-maintained Jewish cemetery in Sao Paulo, arranged in four straight rows, lie 209 anonymous graves. The names on the tombstones have been erased, though they can be found in the cemetery's most confidential files.
These are the last resting places of some of the thousands of polacas, Jewish girls brought to Brazil between the 1860s and 1930 from Eastern Europe to work as prostitutes in the brothels of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Santos and Recife. For over a century, Brazil's Jewish community has kept their identities a tightly guarded secret. Till now.
A new book by Beatriz Kuschnir, a historian at Rio de Janeiro's Federal Fluminense University, tells the story of the polacas and their pimps, names and all, for the first time. And not surprisingly, "Baile de Mascaras" ("Ball of Masks") has sparked fierce controversy inside the normally discreet 220,000-strong Brazilian Jewish community. After all, it was by agreement between community leaders and relatives that the polacas' gravestones were defaced.
"This girl is completely irresponsible," says influential community member Nachman Falbel, professor of medieval studies at the University of Sao Paulo. "The families have the right to privacy on this sensitive issue." Author and journalist Luis Krausz is less censorious but also critical: "Her book is very important, but the way she paints the history, it seems that all the first Jewish immigrants to Brazil were prostitutes or pimps."
Kuschnir, who wrote the book as her master's thesis, is not apologetic. "These so-called historians are not concerned about collective memory, but want to hide and censor it under the shadow of morality," she says dismissively.
Police identified the first boatload of 69 East European Jewish prostitutes to arrive in Brazil in 1867, and they have titillated the imagination of journalists and writers ever since. Kuschnir's is the first full, accurate account.
The prostitutes and their pimps were ostracized by the more established Jews, barred from burial in "normal" cemeteries. They were not admitted to existing synagogues and had to set up their own congregations. Items in newspapers of the 1920s cited by Kuschnir describe picket lines of Jews trying to bar prostitutes and pimps from watching Yiddish plays. Now, say the relatives, their sudden exposure in Kuschnir's book is undeserved publicity.
THE POLACAS ("POLISH WOMEN" in Portuguese) and their pimps first organized in 1906, in Rio de Janeiro, setting up the Jewish Association for Charity, Burial and Religion (ABFRI). Their goals, they wrote in the charter, were: "To set up a synagogue, and there practice all the ceremonies of the Jewish religion. To grant sick members in need of treatment outside the city a third-class train ticket and three pounds sterling. To grant members a third-class funeral." In its heyday, the organization existed in several cities, and several rabbis, all since deceased, were in its employ.
Until 1930, thousands of young girls born in the shtetls of Poland, Russia and Romania were lured to Brazil, as well as Argentina, the United States and Uruguay. "They had no information about life in America and were seduced by pimps wearing nice suits, silk cravats and golden rings, who traveled to the shtetls offering them marriage," says Kuschnir, adding that the pimps would have several weddings in different shtetls on a single trip. "There was no civil marriage registration in Eastern Europe. And frequently the girls met other wives' on the boat. The pimp kept their papers, they had no money and didn't speak the new language, so the brothel was the destination for the majority of them."
"My mother used to go to the port and try to convince the girls to leave their so-called husbands. Almost none of them believed her," remembers Berta Sapolnik, from the northeastern city of Salvador.
A huge network established in 1904, based in Warsaw, New York and Buenos Aires and called Zwi Migdal, owned over 3,000 brothels in Argentina alone. The Argentine community established a huge archive about the women, who were not called polacas there; the records were destroyed in the explosion of the AMIA community building in July 1994.
According to the Rio de Janeiro police, in 1913 there were 431 brothels operating in the center of the city. Among the owners, they identified 87 Russians, 47 Austrians, 36 Germans, 17 Poles, 2 Romanians and one "Jewess." Actually, says Kuschnir, almost all were Jews.
In 1936, Austrian-born author Stefan Zweig visited the "red light zone" near the port of Rio de Janeiro, and wrote a friend that "Jewish women from Eastern Europe promise you the most exciting perversions... "
The polacas left some marks on Brazilian culture and language. It's believed that the slang word for "trouble," encrenca, comes from ein Kranke, a sick man in Yiddish, the term used by the prostitutes for a man with venereal diseases. In the 1950s one of the most famous samba composers, Moreira da Silva, now 95, wrote "My Rare Jewess," a song about his 18-year love affair with Estera Gladkowicer. "There's no rose that could be compared to my rare Jewess," say the words. At the end, Moreira da Silva sings, in Yiddish: Ich bin mishige far dir (I'm crazy about you). In 1968, Estera Gladkowicer committed suicide, as did dozens of other polacas over the years.
THE TRAFFIC OF JEWISH WOMEN to South America faded in the 1930s, after a crackdown on Zwi Migdal in Argentina, followed by the decision of Brazilian dictator Getulio Vargas to close the borders to suspected prostitutes and pimps. But associations of Jewish prostitutes operated till the end of the 60s in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and in the port of Santos, helping out those who were too old to ply their profession. Their presidents, called "sisters superior," wore fancy blue-and-white ribbons at meetings, which all began by raising their flag - usually blue and white, with a Star of David in the center.
In the 1970s, when the last members of the Chessed Shel Emess (True Charity, as their organizations were known) died, or were too sick to live alone, their buildings were taken over by other Jewish societies. In 1972, the Sao Paulo cemetery set up by the polacas was closed down. The remains and tombstones were transferred to the general cemetery, and inscriptions just disappeared. The Santos cemetery, located in a filthy area near an oil refinery, is totally abandoned.
But the graveyard of Inhauma, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, is still very well preserved by a communal society, Sociedade Cemiterio Israelita do Caju. Just beside it is the Favela do Rato Molhado, (the wet rat slum), a dangerous drug dealing center. When you enter the cemetery, caretaker Daniel Rodrigues says: "If the drug dealers start shooting at each other, just look for a strong tombstone."
In 1992, some leaders of the Rio Jewish community tried to quietly have the 792 tombs of Inhauma shifted to the community graveyard, in order to wipe out the inscriptions so that the memory of these unwanted members of the tribe could be obscured. "Those graves were neglected," explains Simao Moller, from Rio's main Jewish burial society.
"But the graves were not abandoned and we forbade it because the polacas are part of our history," says Ronaldo Gomlevsky, former president of the Jewish Federation in Rio de Janeiro. "Judaism opposes prostitution but respects the prostitute, who deserves to rest in peace," agrees Henry Sobel, a Reform rabbi from Sao Paulo.
INSCRIPTIONS ON THE TOMBstones at Inhauma reveal many details about the lives of the polacas and their families. There's a special area for suicides - marginal members of a marginal society. Two graves, of men, show symbols of Freemasonry. Another one, for French-born Lazard Klein, says: "Respects from his children and wife?" The question mark after the word "wife" suggests that the couple was not legally married. Photos of "sisters superior " like Amalia Shkolnik and Angelita Schaffran set into their tombstones show them with the special ribbons on their chests.
Through the beginning of the 80s, the most frequent visitor at Inhauma was Rebecca Freedman, one of the last leaders of the Chessed Shel Emess. Deeply religious, she died in 1986, aged 103. For decades she had a big picture of Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, in her home. When she heard that several Jewish associations wanted to acquire the society's property, Freedman said: "They always looked down upon us. Now they fight for our synagogue."
Whenever someone commented that her customers were mainly non-Jews, Freedman would reply unapologetically: "The men are treif, but the money is kosher."
SEX AND SECRETS: The polaca burial grounds in Rio de Janeiro; Jewish pimp and prostitute
UNAPOLOGETIC: Historian Beatriz Kuschnir named names
Art Patronage and Philistinism in Argentina: Maurycy Minkowski in Buenos Aires, 1930
by Zachary M. Baker
Shofar (Lincoln ) - April 30, 2001
In August 1930 the Polish-Jewish painter Maurycy Minkowski arrived in Buenos Aires for a well-publicized but commercially unsuccessful exhibition of his artworks. Minkowski's exhibition coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, a military uprising, and a roundup of Jewish procurers associated with the Sociedad Zwi Migdal. Both before and after his accidental death (and "celebrity funeral") in November 1930, his patrons -- who included the ambassador from Poland and prominent Jewish cultural figures -- denounced what they regarded as the philistinism of Jewish parvenus in Argentina. As memory of the artist lapsed into obscurity, his supporters established the Museo Minkowski, housing it in the Argentine Jewish community building (AMIA). The salvage of this collection from the ruins of the AMIA, following the July 1994 terrorist bombing, has set the stage for the rehabilitation of this neglected artist's reputation.
The AMIA Bombing and Jewish Cultural Treasures in Buenos Aires
Six years have passed since a terrorist bomb destroyed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (or AMIA) building in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994, killing 86 individuals and wounding another 300. This horrendous crime -- perhaps the bloodiest attack against a Jewish target in the Diaspora since World War II -- has yet to be solved and its perpetrators tracked down and punished. The Argentine Jewish community will be feeling the aftereffects of the bombing for years to come.
Among the Jewish organizations that for almost 50 years were housed in the AMIA was the Instituto Científico Judéo -- IWO -- which (like New York's YIVO Institute for Jewish Research) traces its origins to the Vilna-based Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut. Located on the building's third and fourth floors, IWO's Central Library and Archives was the most extensive collection of printed Judaica in Latin America. IWO also possessed the world's largest collection of artworks by the Polish Jewish painter Maurycy Minkowski, and its exhibit gallery was named after him.(2)
A Polish Jewish Artist Arrives in Argentina
Born in Warsaw in 1881, Minkowski was a medal-winning graduate of the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts. In his art he documented in a naturalistic manner the impact of pogroms, war, and persecution on the Jews of Eastern Europe; he portrayed the grinding poverty and displacement of everyday Jewish life; and he depicted the splendors of Jewish religious traditions -- especially the woman's role in Judaism. Minkowski had lost his hearing as a result of a childhood illness, and the impact of his deafness upon his art was frequently discussed by his contemporaries.
After a decade of increasingly successful touring exhibitions throughout Western Europe and Poland, Maurycy Minkowski embarked on his final voyage in August of 1930, when -- accompanied by his wife Rachel (née Marshak) and his brother Feliks -- he arrived in Buenos Aires, together with over 200 of his artworks. He was greeted as the first Jewish artist of international stature to visit Argentina. Buenos Aires was intended to be the first leg of a circuit of exhibitions by Minkowski; originally, he planned to continue on to Brazil, the United States, and Canada, then return to Poland and proceed from there to Palestine. In 1931, a large-scale retrospective in Warsaw, in honor of the artist's 50th birthday, was projected.(3)
Minkowski came to Argentina at a pivotal juncture in that country's history. On September 6th, just a few weeks after his arrival, a right-wing military revolt overthrew the elected government led by the aging President Hipó1ito Yrigoyen. Argentina then embarked upon a long and depressing cycle of military intervention into civilian affairs, which ended only with the country's humiliating defeat in the Malvinas (Falklands) War of 1982. Minkowski was an eyewitness to the 1930 Revolution, and sketches depicting that event were found in his atelier after his death.
Buenos Aires in 1930 had reached the zenith as a world metropolis. While deriving their vast wealth from the wheatfields and cattle ranches of the Pampas, the city's upper classes were resolutely oriented toward Western Europe. Minkowski chose Buenos Aires as the first Western-Hemisphere venue for an exhibition of his works because, first, that was where his wife's brother resided; in addition, its pretensions as the Paris of South America may also have been an attraction. If so, he was soon to be disappointed in his expectations.
Minkowski's 1930 Exhibition and Its Reception
Minkowski's exhibition, which was held at the Galería Müller on Calle Florida, opened on September 25, 1930, under the official patronage of the Polish ambassador to Argentina, W...adys...aw Mazurkiewicz, and was accompanied by a sustained publicity campaign in the Yiddish and Spanish-Jewish press. From a sales standpoint the exhibit was an abject failure; Minkowski had unwittingly fallen victim to the ever-deepening worldwide economic crisis. Consequently, the artist extended his stay in Argentina and took up residence in Buenos Aires, announcing his intention to draw upon new sources of inspiration by visiting the Jewish agricultural colonies in the rural hinterland.
The Argentine-trained sculptor Israel Hoffmann visited Minkowski's exhibit together with one of Argentina's most famous painters, Benito Quinquela Martin. "We both remarked upon the lack of attention that our National Commission of Fine Arts had paid to this distinguished artist," Hoffmann wrote. "Someone made the observation that the National Commission lacked funds for acquisitions. Yes, but what about the wealthy members of the Jewish community? Why can't they organize a committee to raise funds aimed at acquiring some of Minkowski's works for donation to the National Museum?"(4) And thus was born the Comité pro-Minkowski, which collected funds to purchase one of his canvases for the Argentine National Museum of Fine Arts. Its members included two individuals who would soon deliver orations at the artist's funeral: the Sephardic Rabbi Sabetay Djaen and the young psychologist and cultural figure Dr. León Dujovne. The publishers of Di idishe tsaytung, Mordekhai (Matías) Stoliar, and Mundo Israelita, León Kibrick -- whose newspapers were the prime movers in Minkowski's public relations campaign -- were also among the signatories to the committee's public appeals.(5)
The Accidental Death and "Celebrity Funeral" of Minkowski
On Saturday evening, November 22, 1930, Minkowski was struck by a taxi while crossing a busy street near his house. His skull was fractured and he died almost instantly. After his body was released from the hospital, thousands of mourners visited his rented studio to pay their respects, and thousands more attended his funeral on Monday the 24th.(6)
Minkowski's funeral procession started out from his house, went on to the new and opulent Paso Temple, continued past the Polish Jewish Farband, and thence to the Jewish cemetery at Liniers (just outside of the Argentine federal capital's boundaries), where the Hevrah Kadisha Ashkenazi had reserved a plot for the artist in its honor row. Schoolchildren from the Talmud Torah and Dr. Theodor Herzl Schools, located on the lower floors of the Paso Temple, were released from class in order to participate in the mourning. The El male rahamim prayer was recited at each of the procession's stations.(7)
Just as Ambassador Mazurkiewicz served as the official patron for Minkowski's exhibition at the Galería Müller, he played a similarly prominent role in the artist's funeral, where he delivered an eloquent eulogy. Speeches by the sculptor César Sforza (president of the Sociedad de Artistas Argentinos [Society of Argentine Artists]) and the painter José Antonio Terry (president of the Asociación de Sordomudos [Association of Deaf-Mutes]) were also delivered at Minkowski's funeral. They were joined by León Dujovne (speaking in Spanish) and three Yiddish cultural figures: Marcos Regalsky (a reporter for Di idishe tsaytung), Yisroel Shrayber Halevi, and Abraham Fridman (also an artist, representing the Polish Jewish Farband). Rabbi Djaen officiated over the procession and burial and also delivered a short oration.(8) A shloshim was held one month later at one of Buenos Aires' largest synagogues; the memorial service was led by the great cantor Gershon Sirota of Warsaw, who like the artist had also arrived in August 1930 for a temporary sojourn in Argentina.(9)
If there was a common thread to the remarks of the speakers at Minkowski's funeral, it was the sadness that they expressed at the untimely demise of an eminent artist at the peak of his fame and creative powers. Several mentioned Minkowski's disability as a factor spurring his creativity in the visual arts. Rabbi Djaen, for his part, "express[ed] the deep sadness and pain felt by Sephardic Jews by the death of Minkowski, the artist who immortalized the common suffering of the Jewish people." Finally, Dujovne took note of the historical circumstances of Minkowski's burial in a land so distant from that of his birth:
When the future chronicler discovers this tomb he will say that scarcely 40 years after the beginning of Jewish immigration to Argentina our community had the accidental and unfortunate opportunity to honor the mortal remains of an illustrious painter who was able to portray his people's pain through images of magnificent beauty.
Underlying these public expressions was the gnawing sense that Argentina itself had somehow failed the artist. As the editors of Mundo Israelita expressed it in their frontpage obituary, "Our country was not auspicious for Minkowski. Starting from adversity, his luck turned fatal"(10)
Arthur Aryeh Goren describes comparable mass funerals in New York's Jewish immigrant quarter as "communal observances that were in part civic rituals of affirmation and self-definition and in part ideological and political statements in the guise of ethnic pageantry."(11) This insight can certainly be applied to Minkowski's funeral in Buenos Aires. For the country's Jews, this "pageant of sorrow" was a coming-of-age ritual, staged by members of a cultural elite to bolster the inner resources of their community and enhance its moral stature vis-á-vis the surrounding society, at a time of crisis and transition for both.
The Struggle against the "White Slave Trade"
The mere presence of an official representative of the Polish government at the funeral of a Jewish painter would be worth noting. But the highly public role that Mazurkiewicz played in the Minkowski event's choreography becomes particularly significant when it is viewed in a broader context. In 1930, the Argentine Jewish community was engaged in a vigorous struggle against the "white-slave trade." Jewish leaders regarded the prominence of Jewish procurers and prostitutes as a stain upon their community, and they fully cooperated with the Argentine judiciary's campaign to arrest, try, and deport these rogue elements.
Because so many prostitutes came to Argentina from Poland, members of the Ezras Noschim Society (originally the Buenos Aires branch of the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women) had secured Ambassador Mazurkiewicz's personal involvement in the effort to suppress the traffickers. At a 1927 meeting of Ezras Noschim, writes Victor Mirelman, the ambassador protested that the name of the procurers' benevolent society, the Sociedad Varsovia, "was an `offense to Polish national honor because it has taken the name of the Capital of the Republic of Poland.'" Two years later, "as a result of...combined action between the Polish consulate and Ezras Noschim, the Varsovia society was compelled to change its name and remove its notice boards and name plates from its doors. After August 20, 1929, it was called Zwi Migdal, after the name of one of its presidents"(12)
The campaign to clamp down on the Zwi Migdal society reached a climax precisely during the weeks immediately preceding and following Minkowski's arrival in Argentina.(13) On September 27th, just two days after Minkowski's paintings were put on display, 108 members of Zwi Migdal were arrested on the orders of Judge Manuel Rodriguez Ocampo, who had been leading an extended investigation into the traffickers' activities.(14) The mass arrests marked the beginning of the end of the procurers' organized activity in Argentina.
The exhibition, in a prestigious Calle Florida art gallery, of Minkowski's chaste and devout images of Jewish womanhood, stood as an implicit counterpoint -- and rebuke -- to the sordid goings-on elsewhere in Buenos Aires. Ambassador Mazurkiewicz's presence atop the speakers' list may also have served as tacit recognition on the organizing committee's part, of the role that he played in helping to remove an embarrassing blot on the Jewish community's honor.(15)
Art Patronage and Its Limitations
The ranks of the Comité pro-Minkowski's supporters and the list of speakers at the artist's funeral testify to the impact that Minkowski made on the city's cultural milieu during the months between his arrival in Argentina and his accidental death there. Minkowski's Argentine sponsors encompassed both Jewish and non-Jewish personalities; among the Jews there was representation from the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities; and his Ashkenazi supporters included both Yiddish- and Spanishspeakers. Nevertheless, for the most part their support was limited to ineffectual published appeals and verbal flourishes. These were aimed at encouraging the Jewish community at large to contribute their centavos and pesos toward the acquisition of just one of his paintings for the National Museum, and at shaming the community's pudientes into the purchase of sober and tasteful Minkowski canvases to accompany their seemingly insatiable appetite for garish European tchotchkes.
Five weeks before Minkowski's death -- anticipating the painter's imminent return to Europe -- Rabbi Djaen reflected upon the seeming lack of appreciation that the artist was being accorded by the Argentine Jewish community:
The painter Minkowski arrived in Buenos Aires and passed through it like a meteor. We viewed and admired him, but his trail was extinguished by the coldness of our uncomprehending hearts. Now he is about to depart. He leaves, not with money but with grave disappointment in Argentina and in his brethren, who still have a long distance to go before they reach an understanding of their duty toward great artists. As Minkowski departs from Buenos Aires with empty pockets, the small group of those who did understand him remain behind in a void, pained all the more by this confirmation of the absence of spiritual aristocracy among our fellow Jews in this country....
The 200,000 Jews who are scattered about our clubs and centers exist in a vacuum, amidst so many soirées [tertulias], so much tango...(16)
In the weeks and months after the artist's death, the Comité pro-Minkowski's fundraising effort failed to meet its objective.(17) By then the committee's campaign had assumed a level of urgency, because Minkowski's widow and brother lacked any visible means of support. Minkowski's case thus demonstrates the limitations of art patronage in an Argentine immigrant community at the onset of the Great Depression.
After Minkowski's fatal accident, the Spanish-language newspaper Munro Israelira ran a number of front-page articles and editorials echoing Rabbi Djaen's acerbic comments, hectoring Argentina's Jewish art collectors for their philistinism and reminding them of the debt that they owed to the artists in their midst. Their most scathing critique appeared in conjunction with an exhibition of Minkowski's works that took place one year after his death:
Only in Argentina have wealthy Jews and [Jewish] institutions shown an absolute lack of understanding for this artist. There are many rich Jews here who own lavish houses for which they have not felt obligated to acquire a single picture by Minkowski or any Jewish painter. Many of them display lithographic reproductions of the most banal or popular compositions; others, convinced that an original picture is an obligatory detail for the interior design of any properly decorated house, entrust the task of acquiring them to an agent who buys assorted objects at a discount; the rest acquire them in Europe, either from dealers who specialize in fishing for foreign customers, or from artists who mass-produce their works.
Nobody pays any attention to artists who work or exhibit here. Our rich people prefer to own a car with a fancy brand name, over a canvas or sculpture bearing a distinguished signature -- especially if that signature is by a Jew. They regard the Jewish artist as a schnorrer, and rather than buy one of his works...they prefer to offer a "contribution" to rescue the artist from starvation.
The ignorance of our rich folk, their incomprehension of the duties which as such they are obligated to fulfill, has never manifested itself with such chutzpah [desvergüenza] as in the case of Minkowski. Our community did not deserve to have an artist of his stature come from so far away in search of fortune and hospitality. Neither did they deserve the sad honor of safeguarding his remains.(18)
In succeeding years, the editors of Mundo Israelita repeatedly reminded their readers of the scandalous fact that no monument over the artist's grave had yet been erected. In a 1932 editorial they sarcastically wrote:
On the occasion of the second anniversary of Maurycy Minkowski's passing, it deserves to be noted that even though practically his entire collection of pictures is located here, no Jewish institution has acquired even one of them....
[It] is equally appropriate to note that, to our community's disgrace, Minkowski's grave remains even without a suitable tombstone. Had someone other than a great artist been involved, perhaps by now a hesed shel emes [act of kindness] would have been committed to render him pious homage. However, Minkowski, whose pictures occupy places of honor within famous museums, and who -- by a fatal and unforeseen accident -- is the first notable person to be buried in our cemetery, lacks a monument.(19)
They also denounced those, who in the guise of lamenting this sad state of affairs, neglected to put their money where their mouths were.(20)
These jeremiads by members of a self-styled cultural élite were an expression of the very familiar disdain of the intellectual for the parvenu -- a sentiment that was hardly unique to the Argentina of the 1930s. The individuals concerned were obviously frustrated by their inability to impose their values on those who had risen to the top of the economic pyramid, and they were disgusted by the crude and ostentatious consumption habits of the ricos. If refined tastes could not be willed into existence, then the wealthy needed to be reminded continuously of their presumed obligation to extend classic Jewish principles of tsedakah (thereby raising the community's prestige in the wider society) by patronizing the community's artists.
However, quite aside from the fact that Minkowski's visit to Argentina and his unexpected demise there took place during the Great Depression (which severely curtailed the ability of potential customers to purchase his paintings), Argentine Jewry during the early 1930s was still primarily a community of recent immigrants, relatively few of whom had been in the country for more than two or three decades. Their outlets for cultural and artistic expression were not yet fully developed. In addition, as we have seen, the Jewish community was riven by conflicts arising from the attempt by its leadership to subdue the more sociopathic elements within its ranks. Under such conditions, art appreciation probably took a back seat.
Minkowski's Decline into Obscurity
The development and maturation of Jewish community institutions, together with improving economic and social conditions, eventually enabled the memory of Minkowski to be accorded a renewed level of attention in Argentina. In September 1941, the Polish Jewish Farband finally managed to unveil a modest but very eloquent gravestone and sepulcher for Minkowski.(21) A year later, several of his paintings were auctioned off, after having been held in bank vaults for over a decade as collateral against his heirs' debts.(22) This auction enabled IWO to begin to assemble its outstanding collection of Minkowskis.
In December 1942 (almost three years before the opening of the AMIA building), IWO's leaders decided to honor the artist's memory by naming their art gallery after him; over the succeeding decades they gradually built up their institute's outstanding collection of Minkowskis.(23) Concurrently with its acquisitions program, IWO engaged in an effort to document the artist's life and works. This activity culminated in 1955, with the publication of an album featuring black-and-white reproductions of 37 Minkowskis from IWO's holdings and private collections in Argentina.(24) Given the nostalgic and tragic scenes that are so often depicted in Minkowski's canvases, establishment of the Museo Minkowski during the greatest catastrophe ever to befall the Jewish people was of course an act of elegiac homage to an artist and to an extinguished civilization.(25) Nevertheless, as the years and decades passed, popular awareness of Minkowski and his legacy again dissipated, even within the confines of the Buenos Aires Jewish community.
Why did Minkowski's name disappear from the roster of familiar Jewish artists? First and foremost, Minkowski came of age when post-Impressionism was already giving way to abstraction; consequently, from the very beginning of his career his realistic style was already passé Secondly, his paintings had an immediacy for his Eastern European Jewish contemporaries, and they also appealed to their nostalgia for a bygone age; today, that generation and its experiences themselves belong to a rapidly receding past. Thirdly, the largest single repository of his pictures is a Yiddishist institution in Buenos Aires -- remote, both geographically and culturally, from the mainstream art world. And finally, the disruptions and displacements of 20th-century Jewish history clearly played a major role in erasing Minkowski from the collective memory.
The bombing of the AMIA brought this forgotten artist's neglected legacy to the fore once more. As fate would have it, IWO's Museo Minkowski was located in the rear of the building and suffered comparatively little damage. In the days following the terrorist act over 65 paintings and sketches by Minkowski were extracted from the rubble. Now they await a tikun -- their physical conservation and the reinstatement of their creator to the pantheon of 20th-century Jewish artists.(26) For either of these to happen new patrons must be found, both in Argentina and abroad.
Ordinarily the sojoumings of an itinerant Jewish artist would not provide much fodder for musings on their historical significance. Of course the themes portrayed by Maurycy Minkowski in his canvases -- the degradations and the splendors of Jewish life -- along with the public embrace of his art by so many of his contemporaries lend themselves to contextualization. One of the ironies of Minkowski's having died in a traffic accident in Buenos Aires was that it prevented him from returning to Europe. What fate would he have met there? Would his paintings have gone up in flames in the Warsaw Ghetto? On the other hand, had Minkowski gone ahead with his oft-expressed wish to settle in Palestine, he might have lived out his days there as an honored artist, with his best canvases gracing the galleries of every Israeli art museum -- and reproductions of his most famous images appearing on Israeli postage stamps!
As it happened, though, Minkowski perished in Buenos Aires and was buried there, and the intervening decades between his death and the AMIA bombing turned Argentina into a kind of purgatory for his artworks. Minkowski's story is one of tragedy and paradox, for in the artist's failure to attract the support that he sought in Argentina an opportunity was created that may ultimately set the stage for his eventual rehabilitation.(27) This time around, with any luck, Minkowski and his works will finally succeed in obtaining the recognition that they have always merited.
(1)A version of this essay was presented at the Tenth International Research Conference of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association (LAJSA) held at Princeton University, March 14-15, 1999.
(2)The effects on IWO of the July 18, 1994 bombing are discussed in my unpublished paper, "Coping with Disaster: The Recovery of Jewish Cultural Treasures Endangered by the Buenos Aires Bombing of 1994" (delivered at Stanford University, January 1997).
(3)"B. P. Maurycy Minkowski (wspomnienie po...miertne)," in Nasz przegl...d (Warsaw), no. 326 (Nov. 26, 1930), p. 3.
(4)Israel Hoffmann, "La exposición de Minkowski," in Mundo Israelita (October 11, 1930), p. 2.
(5)The first of the committee's appeals coincidentally appeared in the same issue of Di idishe tsaytung that announced the artist's accidental death just hours earlier: "An oyfruf tsu di idishe instituts yes un tsu der idisher bafelkerung in algemeyn," in Di idishe tsaytung (November 23, 1930), p. 3.
(6)For accounts of his death, see: "Morits Minkovski, barihmter idisher mohler umgekumen in a oytomobil-aktsident," in Di idishe tsaytung (November 23, 1930), p. 1; "Moler Morits Minkovski tragish umgekumen in an oyto aktsident," in Di prese (November 23, 1930), p. 1. Further details are provided, along with information concerning the route of his funeral procession, in: "Morits Minkovski's tragisher toyt hot oyfgerudert B. Ayres; di levaye vet forkumen haynt 10 azeyger," in Di idishe tsaytung (November 24, 1930), p. 1; "Protim vegn tragishn umkum fun kunst moler Minkovski," in Di prese (November 24, 1930), editorial page.
(7)"Di impozante levaye fun Morits Minkovski," in Di idishe tsaytung (November 25, 1930), p. 5; "Di groyse levaye fun Morits Minkovski," in Di prese (November 25, 1930).
(8)These speeches were reproduced or summarized in the three Jewish newspapers that covered the funeral. Of the three newspapers, Di prese provided the most limited coverage of the speeches, reproducing only the one by Abraham Fridman at length. Di idishe tsaytung published extensive versions of the eulogies delivered by Ambassador Mazurkiewicz, León Dujovne, and Marcos Regalsky. Mundo Israelita gave its most complete coverage to the speeches by Dujovne and Mazurkiewicz and was the only newspaper to mention José Antonio Terry's eulogy.
(9)See "Di hazkore nokh Morits Minkowski z"l," in Di idishe tsaytung (December 24, 1930), p. 6, and "El funeral en memoria de Minkowski," in Mundo Israelita (December 27, 1930), pp. 1-2. It is sad and ironic that the profoundly deaf Minkowski, who was a personal friend of Sirota's, should have been memorialized by one of the world's greatest living cantors.
(10)"Minkowski," Mundo Israelita (November 29, 1930), p. 1. Quotations from the speeches delivered at Minkowski's funeral are taken from this article and from "Di impozante levaye fun Morits Minkovski," in Di idishe tsaytung (November 25, 1930), p. 5.
(11)Arthur Aryeh Goren, "Pageants of Sorrow, Celebration and Protest: The Public Culture of American Jews," in Literary Strategies: Jewish Texts and Contexts, edited by Ezra Mendelsohn (New York: Published for the [Avraham Harman] Institute [of Contemporary Jewry, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem] by Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 202 (Studies in Contemporary Jewry; 12). This essay is also included in Goren's book The Politics and Public Culture of American Jews (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 199), pp. 30-47.
(12)Victor A. Mirelman, Jewish Buenos Aires, 1890-1930: In Search of an Identity (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), pp. 216-217. According to Mirelman, "Mazurkiewicz visited the offices of Ezras Noschim and had access to its archives and promised to propose to his own government that it issue more stringent emigration laws for women leaving the country by themselves."
(13)The attendant publicity even had reverberations in the Yiddish cultural milieu: On September 3, 1930, the famous actors Stella Adler and Samuel Goldenberg (visiting from New York) co-starred in a benefit production at the Teatro Excelsior, where they chose to stage Isadore Solotarevsky's melodrama Di vayse shklavin -- surely no accident, considering the vast repertory of Yiddish plays at their disposal. (See "Teatro, música, espectáculos: Fue muy celebrada Stella Adler en ocasión de su beneficio," in Mundo Israelita [September 6, 1930], p. 3.) Their performance was to be repeated on September 6th, the very same day that President Yrigoyen was overthrown by a right-wing military coup.
(14)Regarding the Jewish role in the traffic in prostitution in Argentina, see: Edward Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight against White Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982); Emesto Goldar, "La `mala vida'," in Buenos Aires 1880-1930: la capital de un imperio imaginario, dirigido por Horacio Vázquez Rial (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1996), pp. 236-245; Mirelman, Jewish Buenos Aires, 1890-1930, pp. 197-220; Robert Weisbrot, The Jews of Argentina: From the Inquisition to Perón (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979), pp. 59-66. For examples of the Argentine Jewish community's reaction to Judge Rodriguez Ocampo's efforts to suppress the traffickers, see: "El proceso contra la Migdal," in Mundo Israelita (October 4, 1930), pp. 1-2; "Rikhter Dr. Rodrigez Okampo hot diktirt preventiven arest far 108 froyen-hendler, mitglider fun der `Migdal'," in Di idishe tsaytung (October 1, 1930), p. 8.
(15)Ambassador Mazurkiewicz's patronage of the 1930 Buenos Aires exhibition presents an interesting parallel to Minkowski's 1922 exhibition in Vilna, which was patronized by the Polish military governor of the region, General Stefan Mokrzecki (1862-1932), and served as a rare opportunity for Polish-Jewish cultural rapprochement. The Vilna exhibition is documented in an extensive scrapbook found in the YIVO Archives (Record Group 101, Jewish Artists, General Series).
(16)Sabetay J. Djaen, "Minkowski, Goldenberg y nuestra colectividad," in Munro Israelita (October 18, 1930), p. 3. Rabbi Djaen, born in Pleven (Plevna), Bulgaria in 1883, came to Buenos Aires in 1928 from Monastir (now Bitolj, Macedonia) and assumed the chief rabbinate of the Sephardic community of Bucharest in 193l, where he remained through World War II. He returned to Argentina after the war, dying there in 1947.
(17)The results of the Comité Pro-Minkowski's appeals -- including lists of donors and sums raised -- were covered regularly in the Yiddish- and Spanish-language Jewish press. See, for example, the following articles in Mundo Israelita: "La coleeta pro cuadro Minkowski" (December 13, 1930, pp. 1-2), "La Chevrah Keduscha se suscribió con 1000 p. para el cuadro Minkowski" (December 20, 1930, p. 2), "La colecta pro cuadro Minkowski" (December 27, 1930, p. 2), "Por la adquisición de obras de Minkowski" (January 16, 1931, p. 2). The latter article reports on the appeal made to wealthy Jews by "a group of intellectuals," soliciting their contributions to the picture fund, with proceeds going to support Minkowski's destitute heirs. Among the appeal's 17 signatories were some of the Argentine Jewish community's most prominent cultural figures, including Alberto Gerchunoff, César Tiempo, José Mendelsohn, Salomón Resnick, and León and Salvador Kibrick.
(18)"Nuestra colectividad y sus artistas," in Mundo Israelita (December 19, 1931), p. 1. This unsigned article was probably written by León Kibrick and certainly reflected the newspaper's editorial viewpoint.
(19)"II. aniversario de la muerte de Minkowski," in Mundo Israelita (November 26, 1932), p. 1.
(20)See "Hay que predicar con el ejemplo," in Mundo Israelita (December 10, 1932), p. 1, in which the editors directed their polemics at the remarks of the president of the Polish Jewish Farband (Unión residentes israelitas de Polonia), for what they regarded as his empty posturing concerning the absence of a proper monument for Minkowski. And yet, the unnamed leader's association had itself neglected to make its own contribution to Minkowski's burial fund. Almost a decade after this editorial appeared, the same association was able to remedy the situation by claiming credit for erecting a monument at the Jewish cemetery in Liniers, in memory of the departed Polish-Jewish artist.
(21)The stone includes a relief sculpture of an artist's palette, beneath a Yiddish inscription: "Maurice Minkowski, born in Warsaw 1881, died in Buenos Aires, 24 November 1930." (Ironically, the date of the artist's funeral is given as his death date.) A small photograph of Minkowski is inset between the palette and a bronze tablet containing an inscription in his memory, placed by the Association (dated July 1941). The marble sepulcher includes a bronze sculpture of a painter's pot which has toppled, leaving the brushes lying horizontally atop the slab, never again to be picked up by the artist.
(22)"Obras de Minkowski en subasta pública," in Mundo Israelita (December 5, 1942), p. 3. This newspaper's earlier critique of the Argentine Jewish community's neglect of Minkowski is repeated in this article.
(23)Concerning the naming of IWO's gallery, see "El Instituto Científico Judío hizo un resúmen de la labor cumplida," in Mundo Israelira (December 19, 1942), p. 6. IWO's gradual acquisition of Minkowski paintings is documented in its newsletter, Argentiner YIVO-yedies. See, for example, the following articles: "Morits Minkovskis a nay bild in YIVO," no. 11 (December 1947), p. 2; "20ter yortsayt fun Morits Minkovski z"l," no. 18 (1951), p. 2. By 1951 IWO had acquired 12 pictures by Minkowski.
(24)Minkovski...mir an araynfir-vort fun Dr. L. Zhitnitsk (Spanish title: Minkowski...con una introducción del Dr. L. Zitnitzky) (Buenos Aires: Instituto Científico Judío -- I.W.O., 1955). A second edition was published in 1958. See also the following notices in the Argentinet YIVO-yedies: "Fartik di arbet vegn kinstler Morits Minkovski," no. 8 (September 1946), p. 2; "Albumen fun der muzeysektsye," no. 14 (January 1949), p. 2.
(25)At precisely the same time that the Museo Minkowski was established in Buenos Aires, IWO's New York counterpart, the transplanted Yiddish Scientific Institute -- now the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research -- undertook an ambitious campaign to collect images and artifacts of the nowirrecoverable Eastern European Jewish world that only a few years earlier had served as a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of historical and ethnographic raw material for the Vilna YIVO's renowned zamler campaign. (See the following articles in the Newsletter of the YIVO / Yedies fun YIVO: "A Museum of the Homes of the Past," no. 3 [July 1944], p. 2 [English section]; "A Museum of the Jewish Homes of the Past: Campaign for the Collection of Materials under Way," no. 5 [November 1944], p. 4 [English section].) YIVO also mounted two displays of Roman Vishniac's memorable images of Jews in Poland and the Carpathians (which he photographed on the eve of World War II), the first of which opened on January 29, 1944, as the inaugural exhibition in YIVO's newly purchased building on West 123rd Street. (See "Exhibition of Art Photographs," in Newsletter of the YIVO / Yedies fun YIVO, no. 2 [February 1944], p. 2 [English section].) The second of Vishniac's exhibitions opened in conjunction with the January 1945 conference of the YIVO Institute. (See the following articles in the Newsletter of the YIVO / Yedies fun YIVO: "Jewish Life in the Carpathians: A New Exhibition of Art Photographs by Roman Vishniac," no. 6 [December 1944], p. 8 [English section]; "Jewish Life in the Carpathians: Exhibit of Photographs by Roman Vishniac Opened at Conference," no. 7 [February 1945], p. 7 [English section].) It was at that conference that Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered his memorable eulogy for Polish Jewry -- which a few years later would sanctify Vishniac's photo album, Polish Jews: A Pictorial Record (New York: Schocken Books, 1947) by serving as that book's introductory essay. Heschel's speech was first published as "Di mizrekh-eyropeishe tkufe in der yidisher geshikhte," in YIVO-bleter 25 (1945), pp. 163-183, and then in English translation as "The Eastern European Era in Jewish History," in YIVO Annual 1 (1946), pp. 86-106. During the mid1940s Roman Vishniac's photographs served a similar nostalgic (and cathartic) function for North American Jews as Maurycy Minkowski's paintings were meant to serve for their Argentine Jewish counterparts. Since then, the appeal of Vishniac's images -- in contrast to Minkowski's -- has far transcended the limits of its initial public, to the degree that they now represent a canonical vision of what Eastern European Jewish life was like.
(26)For background on the Minkowski art conservation project (which at present is unfortunately in abeyance), see my article, "Salvaging the Threatened Legacy of a Neglected Artist: The Maurycy Minkowski Collection in Buenos Aires," in The Council of American Jewish Museums Newsletter, vol. 7, no. 1 (June 1998), pp. 1, 11-14.
(27)I have discussed the ebbs and flows of his artistic reputation in my unpublished paper, "Maurycy Minkowski (1881-1930): The Threefold Death of a Polish Jewish Artist" (delivered at the Ashkenaz: Theory and Nation conference, Kraków, May 1998).
BODIES AND SOULS;
The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas, 1860 to 1939
Kirkus Reviews - September 1, 2005
Investigative journalist Vincent (Hitler's Silent Partners, 1997, etc.) uncovers a little-known slice of Jewish history.
Sophia Chamys was just 13 when her father, a struggling peasant in a Polish shtetl, arranged her marriage to a well-dressed stranger from Lodz. Or, at least, that's what papa Chamys thought he was doing. But the marriage was a ruse: Sophia's "husband" was, in fact, a wheeler-dealer in an international prostitution ring run by a group of Jewish gangsters known as Zwi Migdal. Their web of brothels stretched from Poland to New York to India, but the nerve center was in Buenos Aires. That was where Chamys ended up, locked in a whorehouse, despised and shunned by the more respectable members of the city's Jewish community, which refused even to give the prostitutes proper burials. So the women themselves--largely illiterate, bitterly poor--banded together to form their own benevolent society: the Chesed Shel Ermess, or Society of Truth. At the forefront were Chamys and fellow prostitutes Rachel Liberman and Rebecca Freedman, who managed to get to a police station and leave a record of her life before she died of tuberculosis at 18. While the story is fascinating, this history would have been stronger if Vincent had made an argument or two, offered more analysis and availed herself of more of the scholarly literature on white slavery. Footnotes would also be welcome: the story of these prostitutes, after all, has long been buried (Jews in Buenos Aires reportedly avoid the subject still today), and citations documenting the awesome research surely required for Vincent to retell the tale would only add to the book's popular appeal.
Riveting and disturbing, if somewhat incomplete.
Publication Date: 11/01/2005
Author: Vincent, Isabel
Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas, 1860 to 1939
Publishers Weekly Reviews - September 5, 2005
Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas, 1860 to 1939 Isabel Vincent. Morrow, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 0-06-009023-5
One of the saddest and most shameful stories in Jewish history has been suppressed for generations: between 1860 and 1939, thousands of poor young women from Eastern European shtetls were sold into sexual slavery by the Jewish-run Zwi Migdal crime syndicate, which controlled brothels on several continents. Focusing on three women, Vincent reconstructs the miserable lives of many of these women. One, sent to New York, saw 273 men in a two-week period. Many, unable to find support in the Jewish communitywhich ostracized themcommitted suicide. And one, Sally Knopf, whose own uncle was a trafficker, escaped by disguising herself as a man. There is some triumph here: the Jewish prostitutes of Rio de Janeiro purchased their own cemetery in 1916 and ran their own burial society. By the time they bought their own synagogue in 1942, they had seen the demise of the Zwi Migdal gang. Unanswered questions, many raised by Vincent herself, abound. Clearly, poverty and lack of opportunity in Europe drove women into the trade, but why did they stay? Canadian journalist Vincent (Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold and the Pursuit of Justice ) demonstrates her strength as a writer and storyteller, which enables her to at least partially retrieve this all-but-lost world. Agent, Dorian Karchmar.(Nov.)
Duped into slavery, women displayed spirit and strength
by ELAINE KALMAN NAVES, Freelance
The Gazette (Montreal) - November 5, 2005 Saturday
Bodies and Souls:
The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas
By Isabel Vincent
Random House, 264 pages, $34.95
Working in South America as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail in the 1990s, Isabel Vincent stumbled upon references to a mysterious cemetery for Jewish prostitutes in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Curiosity piqued, she began a five-year quest which, she writes in Bodies and Souls, proved to be the most challenging investigative story of her career. This is a bold claim, given that Vincent is also the author of two other books - Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and the Pursuit of Justice; and See No Evil: The Strange Case of Christine Lamont and David Spencer - that required serious sleuthing.
Bodies and Souls is not merely the story of three Jewish women forced into prostitution, as its subtitle asserts, but also a retrospective look at the Jewish white slave trade, an obscene chapter in the history of vice.
From the 1860s to the beginning of the Second World War, thousands of naive, impoverished Jewish girls from the backwaters of eastern Europe were sold by Jewish mobsters into sexual slavery. This hugely profitable (annual revenues of $50 million in the 1890s) commerce in flesh was operated by the Zwi Migdal, a criminal association described by a contemporary as "an octopus, achieving an almost unassailable position." It was centred in Buenos Aires, with branch offices in Brazil, South Africa, India, China and Poland.
This tale of misery and exploitation (readers in search of titillation won't find any here) was rooted in the poverty of the shtetls of eastern Europe, from which many of the pimps as well as their victims sprang. Pimps returning from the Americas to their home villages in the garb and comportment of prosperous gentlemen faked marriages with girls gulled by reports of riches abroad. Disillusionment generally set in as soon as the women left their homes with their unscrupulous "husbands." Brutalization went hand in hand with deception in a vicious circle almost impossible to escape.
Charismatic and shrewd, the pimps were excellent managers who had everyone - from ships' stewards to politicians, bureaucrats, police chiefs and high-ranking judges - in their pockets. They were aided by other crooks, the so-called professors, "misery secretaries, who tallied up the earnings of the trade, oversaw the brothels, and arranged for false travel documents, especially for the underaged shtetl girls." The professors also wrote sanguine letters home that kept the reputation of the pious (and illiterate) shtetl girls intact.
The most surprising aspect of this grim story is how attached the debased victims of the trade were to their Judaism. Despised and reviled by their respectable co-religionists, in 1906 a group of nine Rio prostitutes calling themselves The Society of Truth drew up a blueprint for a burial society of their own. Ten years later, a newly arrived prostitute named Rebecca Freedman became their leader (the women called her their queen) and made it her mission to perform the sacred tahara ceremony of washing the dead.
Vincent shapes the narrative around the lives of three women: the unfortunate Sophia Chamys, who died at 18, after a five-year career in the brothels of Buenos Aires and Rio; the above-mentioned Rebecca Freedman; and Rachel Liberman, the woman whose testimony helped an honest cop destroy the Zwi Migdal in Argentina in the 1930s.
Vincent pieces together the bare bones of the lives of her subjects, but is ultimately frustrated by the secrecy that continues to surround the history of South American Jewish prostitutes, whose descendants persist in shying away from publicity even today, decades after the women's deaths. (Rebecca was the last to die, in 1984, at age 103.)
Because of the veil of mystery, Vincent often has to resort to suppositions and hypotheses about the motivation of her characters. At times, as when trying to account for Rebecca's devotion to the dead, the technique works. "Perhaps she wanted to make sure that God was paying particular attention to these hapless women. ... Or perhaps she somehow wanted to purify herself. ... For Rebecca Freedman knew she had sinned, and she may have been asking God's forgiveness for herself."
At other times, the long string of rhetorical questions exasperates the reader: "It's not clear when Sophia found out that Isaac Booroslky, her 'husband,' had sold her to Chumpaisk. ... Did Chumpaisk tell her on the ship, during the beatings and her frequent crying fits? Or did he tell her when they arrived in America?"
Notwithstanding this cavil, the book sheds light on an obscure page of history that is both tragic and uplifting. Victims of unscrupulous gangsters, the women portrayed in Bodies and Souls displayed spirit and strength in their solidarity with each other, their efforts on behalf of their children, and in their adherence to their faith and culture.
Elaine Kalman Naves is a Montreal writer.
Photo: COURTESY OF RANDOM HOUSE CANADA; Rachel Liberman (centre) arrives in Buenos Aires, Oct. 22, 1922, and greets her husband, Jacob, and her sister-in-law.
Forced to Sell Their Bodies Far From Home
By Isabel Vincent
Maclean's - November 7, 2005
A new book by ISABEL VINCENT uncovers the little-known tragedy of Jewish slave-prostitutes
From the 1860s to the late 1930s, thousands of young Jewish women from Eastern Europe were sold, tricked or forced into prostitution in Latin America, South Africa, India and the United States. Living in poverty in urban ghettos or rural shtetls, they fell victim to a gang of Jewish mobsters called Zwi Migdal. In Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas, Canadian journalist and author Isabel Vincent describes their lives of hardship and essential banishment from the Jewish community. What follows is an excerpt from the tale of a 13-year-old victim.
SOPHIA CHAMYS had never met a man like Isaac, and years later in Brazil, when she told her story to the police, she could still recall the smell of the lavender oil that he used on his hair and the feel of his silk handkerchiefs against her skin. But most of all she remembered his hands -- so refined and smooth, like a child's. In the shtetl on the outskirts of Warsaw where Sophia shared a one-room thatch-roofed house with her parents and younger sister, people had working hands -- misshapen, permanently chapped, sunburned, and covered in hardened blisters.
Sophia's father had such hands, from years of working the fields, eking out a living by collecting hay that he sold to local farmers. Already at 13, Sophia had hands that were rough and calloused from helping her parents. Perhaps she instinctively hid them behind her back when she felt Isaac's gaze upon her for the first time.
They met in Warsaw, at Castle Square, under the bronze statue of King Sigismund III, who stood defiantly clutching a large cross on a tall majestic column, overlooking stately row houses and the 15th-century royal castle. Congregating at the statue had become something of a tradition for the Chamys family on these fruitless trips to Warsaw. Perhaps they considered this rendezvous beneath the king a pilgrimage to hope: things would be different on the next trip to the city; bad luck could not last a lifetime.
Sophia and her family had walked the 25 miles from their shtetl to Warsaw, where her father had been promised work. But as was so often the case in the unhappy history of the Chamys family, the job never materialized. Standing with their oily cloth bundles under Sigismund III, the family was preparing for the long walk home when the elegant stranger loomed over them.
Isaac Boorosky approached the bedraggled family, introducing himself to Sophia's father as a successful businessman and a Jew. He told them he was looking for a maid to work in his widowed mother's kitchen in Lodz, which was just a six-hour journey over dirt roads from Warsaw. He nodded toward Sophia. How old is she?
Isaac didn't waste any time. After years of training, he knew how to spot a lucrative prospect. He knew to look beyond the ragged, loose garments and the filthy clogs worn by the peasant girls. He quickly saw Sophia's attributes -- the milky skin, the outline of budding breasts, the full red lips, the wisps of raven hair peeking out of the dark kerchief. What luck to discover such a specimen in the centre of Warsaw! How fortunate that his expensive new shoes and trousers would be spared the shtetl mud. "Eight rubles," said Isaac, barely containing his excitement and removing the money from his pocket. The amount was an advance on Sophia's first six months of service, and Isaac pressed the coins into her father's rough, sunburned hands.
Sophia's father hesitated, even though the money must have seemed a huge amount -- the equivalent of a year's wages for the family.
Later Sophia recalled the stab of anger she felt as her father refused the handful of coins. For even at 13, Sophia must have been aware that there were few prospects for young women from the shtetls, particularly those on the teeming outskirts of Warsaw. One foreign visitor had described them as manure-carpeted encampments -- "the eternal dwelling place of poverty."
Sophia knew that girls from the shtetl ended up exactly like their mothers and grandmothers. They seemed to spend a lifetime covered in soot as they cooked over a wood stove. They left their homes at sunrise to work in the fields, returning at dusk to prepare the evening meal, which many days was nothing more than a thin potato soup or cucumbers and onions in brine mixed with buttermilk -- if there was any buttermilk to be had.
For a girl like Sophia, there was no escape from the same kind of drudgery. Her parents were poor, even by shtetl standards, and could do little to improve their lot in life. They could not afford to send their daughters to school. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was little in the way of education for girls, even among wealthier Jews.
"I may have to beg to feed my daughters," Sophia recalled her father telling the handsome stranger in Warsaw. "But I will never be separated from them."
Isaac refused to give up. He was solicitous and charming, assuring Sophia's father that he would watch over Sophia as if she were his own daughter.
Like my own daughter.
The words might have sounded vaguely ominous to Sophia's father, but he chose to keep his fears to himself. Perhaps sensing the man's suspicions, Isaac handed him a card with his mother's address in Lodz. It was an open invitation for the family to visit Sophia whenever they found themselves in the city. No doubt, Isaac knew the sacrifice involved for the Chamyses in travelling even the shortest distance.
No, he would be safe from their scrutiny in Lodz. It was unlikely the Chamys family would ever make the journey. They were so poor they couldn't afford to take the train or travel by cart. They would have to walk if they wanted to see Sophia, and the trip would surely take them several days.
Finally, through heart-wrenching sobs, Sophia's father nodded his acquiescence. Of course, he had misgivings -- the kind that lodged themselves at the pit of his stomach and made him feel queasy. He knew it was wrong to hand his daughter over like this, even to this obviously refined, worldly man.
Had he heard the rumours of Jewish girls being taken into white slavery by fellow Jews? Young, beautiful girls like Sophia never heard from again? Was it the stuff of urban legend, crafted by wary peasants like himself who had an innate fear of the big city? Or was it another tall tale invented by the anti-Semitic authorities to dredge up hatred against the Jews -- another pretext for a bloody pogrom? Did Jewish strangers really prey on the daughters of the poor, and sell them into bondage? It was hard to believe.
In the end, Sophia's father agreed to take the elegant stranger's money.
Sophia was sold to a stranger in a public square in broad daylight in the civilized centre of Europe. Deep in his heart, Sophia's father must have known that he was indeed selling his daughter. Perhaps it was the dark realization that led to his wrenching sobs during the negotiations.
AT THE TURN of the last century, men like Isaac Boorosky belonged to a cadre of well-organized Jewish pimps who scoured the impoverished shtetls and urban ghettos of Eastern Europe looking for girls and women to sell into prostitution around the world.
They arrived in the most miserable backwaters, armed with gifts of coffee, chocolate, or cheaply made garments -- luxuries that were unattainable for most Eastern European Jews. Like Isaac Boorosky, they were impeccably dressed and spoke vaguely of their business holdings abroad. Some said they were ranchers, others that they owned jewellery stores or garment factories. They told the shtetl elders that they were looking for young girls to work in their factories, or, as in Isaac's case, that they needed another person on their domestic staff.
But most often the elegant strangers said they had returned to their own roots in the shtetls to search for suitable brides. Of course, it was an outright lie, but it was calculated to allay the fears of ignorant and suspicious peasants who knew little of the world outside their isolated communities.
Travelling through Poland in the early part of the 20th century, a French newspaperman described how the village matchmaker sometimes worked with the traffickers, cynically giving them advice on which women to target in small towns: "Such and such a house is no good: the girls are sickly. Avoid such and such a family: the father and mother mean to ask a high price. There's only a grandmother in that house and she won't last long. Take the child, she's the best bargain in the district. I've watched her for you like a peach on a wall. You need only pick it!"
The practice of recruiting young women for prostitution through promises of marriage became so commonplace that after the First World War, the League of Nations began to issue warnings. In one of its reports, the world body recounted the offences of an unidentified Polish trafficker, arrested in Poland following the war, who had "married" 30 girls, all of whom ended up in brothels in South America. The trafficker had found them through a marriage broker in Warsaw, who regularly put ads in the Yiddish newspapers.
DID SOPHIA'S FATHER suspect Isaac Boorosky of being a pimp?
There must have been something sinister about the man, something he didn't trust. A week after their emotional goodbye in Warsaw, Sophia's father decided to visit his daughter in Lodz. He was determined to return the eight rubles to Boorosky and take Sophia back to the shtetl where she belonged.
But Sophia did not want to leave with her father. For seven days, she had worked hard for Boorosky's mother, who lived in a large, well-appointed apartment in the centre of Lodz. Sophia had never known such luxury and couldn't believe her luck. Perhaps she was enjoying the luxurious sensation of sleeping on cotton sheets in her own bed. Had she tasted chocolate for the first time? Perhaps she had taken a bath in a real porcelain tub filled with hot water. In any case, Sophia must have imagined that she was turning into a proper lady. Isaac had bought her a beautiful taffeta dress and even petticoats made of silk!
Yes, everything is fine, Isaac told Sophia's father. Sophia is a hard worker, and well liked. Besides, confided Isaac to Sophia's father, if she continues to do such excellent work, perhaps she would even make a good wife.
Was this a marriage proposal? Did Isaac Boorosky mean to marry his daughter?
The promise must have done much to allay the old man's fears of bondage and white slavery, if such thoughts had actually crossed his mind. Now that he was convinced that Isaac Boorosky's intentions were noble, Sophia's father could return to the shtetl confident that she would be properly treated. His daughter would marry a gentleman, and perhaps now the family's life would change completely.
In fact, the day after Sophia's father returned to the shtetl, Sophia's life did change radically. Isaac told her she would no longer be working in his mother's kitchen. He asked her to put on the silk petticoats and taffeta dress. Sophia learned that she was to accompany Isaac to another one of his apartments, on the outskirts of Lodz. When they arrived, Sophia and Isaac ate what seemed to Sophia a sumptuous feast. Later, she would recall little of what they ate, and only remembered that Isaac filled and refilled her glass with beer, which tasted bitter and made her feel light-headed and sleepy.
Sophia later told police that she had no memory of what happened next. But when she woke up the following morning, she was deeply embarrassed to find herself lying in bed naked. Worst of all, Isaac was lying in bed beside her. "Now you are my wife," he said simply.
Brought up in a society where women rarely questioned men, least of all their husbands, Sophia believed everything Isaac told her. On the morning following the rape, when he deposited her in a house full of women -- a place that Sophia mistook for a hotel -- she didn't think to ask him why.
The prostitutes soon set her straight. Isaac Boorosky was a ruffian, they said. He bought and sold women, and he had bought her, Sophia Chamys, who was now the newest addition to his brothel. Sophia never talked about what she felt when she found herself in a brothel for the first time. She would only say that there must have been some kind of mistake; she refused to believe the prostitutes, and naively walked back to Isaac's mother's home in the city to sort things out.
Isaac greeted her warmly, but he made no mention of the brothel. How sorry he was that things had gotten out of hand. Yes, they would be together again soon, he reassured her, but first she must do him a favour. Perhaps he told her he needed to pay back a loan and would have to hire her out to a business associate in Konin. She would work as a scullery maid for a few months, until his debt was paid, and then they would be reunited in Lodz. On some level, Isaac must have made it clear that as his wife, Sophia would need to help him as much as she could, obey him without question.
Years later, Sophia readily admitted to police that the reason she decided to go to Konin was because Isaac had promised to send her by train. How many times had she and her sister heard the trains rattling to Warsaw! No one in the shtetl could afford to ride on a train -- not the tailor, the storekeeper, or the cantor. She would do anything to ride on a train, and believed Isaac when he said they would be separated for only a few months.
When she arrived in Konin, Sophia knew instantly she was destined for another brothel; this time she understood the brutal reality of what her young life had become. Isaac had sold her to a pimp named Libet, who ran a decrepit brothel on the outskirts of town. For more than a month Sophia worked as a prostitute for well-oiled and mustachioed gentlemen like Isaac, the man she still stubbornly considered her husband.
It's not clear how Sophia managed to escape the brothel. She told police that after she found out she was pregnant, she decided to return to the shtetl. She would have to tell her parents she was pregnant with her husband's child. There was no shame in that. But she could never, ever, tell them that she had been working in a common house, as a prostitute.
In the end, Sophia could say nothing about her ordeal to her family. The news would cause unbearable shame. But as she approached her old house in the shtetl, her parents and sister embraced her, and all began to speak at once. They touched her hair, felt her new taffeta frock, admired her shoes. Look at Sophia! they exclaimed with great joy. She's fat and so beautiful!
But where is your new husband?
At that moment Sophia learned that Isaac had promised her father that he would marry her when the old man showed up in Lodz to take her back to the shtetl. So it was true, Isaac's intentions were good. But why did he want her to work in a brothel?
Three days after she was reunited with her family, Isaac appeared at their door. He told Sophia's parents that he had urgent business in America and could not possibly leave without his new bride.
There was no time for a proper wedding, he said. Could the Chamys family round up two witnesses, and could they meet in the shtibl [prayer house] for the ceremony?
Even though the wedding was organized in such haste, and would not be officiated by a religious leader, the Chamys family would not have thought anything amiss. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, such ritual weddings were common in the smaller, poorer shtetls where rabbis were rarely present. The ceremony required only the presence of one Jewish witness, and was commonly referred to in Yiddish as a stille chuppah or "silent wedding."
Of course, this was very convenient for pimps like Isaac Boorosky, for whom the stille chuppah became a very important tool, allowing them to entrap ignorant women and rob them of their civil rights. It is not known how many impoverished young women Isaac married in these "silent weddings."
Sometimes the multiple marriages got out of hand, and traffickers would find themselves juggling too many women. The authorities who arrested Boorosky in Brazil said that it was not uncommon for him to return to South America from his frequent business trips to Eastern Europe with more than one wife. On one trip he "married" a Russian girl, took her to Austria, and hid her in a hotel while he used the same means to secure a local girl. He told the Russian wife that he needed to stop in Austria to buy up properties and to hire a housekeeper for his home in America. Like Sophia, the Russian woman would not have thought to question the man she took to be her new husband. A few days after his marriage to the new woman in Austria, Isaac confessed to the Russian woman that in order to arrange the Austrian's documents, he had to marry her as well.
Why did women put such blind trust in men like Isaac? The answer is easily summed up in one word: America.
"In America, people eat an orange every day." How many times had Sophia and her sister heard their neighbours say that? In the shtetl, oranges were rare, and reserved for very special occasions. But in America everyone was rich and oranges were plentiful. People in America also ate chicken every day, and had clothes made of silk.
Following the ceremony in the shtetl, Sophia returned to Lodz with Isaac, who told her she would sail with one of his business associates -- a man he identified only as Chumpaisk -- to Buenos Aires, a city on the other side of the world. The journey would take exactly 22 days by sea, he told her.
DID CHUMPAISK rape her on the ship? Did he beat her so hard that she could now walk only with great difficulty?
It was a common occurrence among pimps who sailed with their young "wives" to South America. Aboard the ship, the men would at first calmly explain that once they docked in Buenos Aires, their "wives" would be expected to begin working as prostitutes. If a woman resisted, she was often raped and beaten into submission. The pimp, according to one police report, "undertook a system of planned demoralization on board ship, where he completely changed his language and manner." For girls like Sophia who could speak only Yiddish, communication with any of the ship officials proved impossible. Like Sophia, most girls must have resigned themselves to their fate.
It's not clear when Sophia found out that Isaac Boorosky, her "husband," had sold her to Chumpaisk in Lodz. Did Chumpaisk tell her on the ship, during the beatings and her frequent crying fits? Or did he tell her when they arrived in America?
It didn't matter, in the end. By the time they cleared immigration formalities in Buenos Aires, Sophia probably already knew she was Chumpaisk's slave and would have to do his bidding.
Sophia eventually returned to Boorosky and continued to work as a prostitute back in Poland, where her daughter died in infancy, and then again in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. After years of beatings and misery, at the age of 18 she denounced Boorosky to police in Rio. He was not arrested until a crackdown years later. Months after going to the Rio police, Sophia died of tuberculosis.
Excerpted from Bodies and Souls by Isabel Vincent. Copyright © 2005 Isabel Vincent. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
GRAPHIC: Illustration, depiction of pimps recruiting young women: preying on the poor with promises of marriage, COURTESY OF TAMIMENT COLLECTION, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY; Photo 1, The Buenos Aires red-light district in the 1920s, COURTESY OF YIVO INSTITUTE, NEW YORK; Photo 2, BODIES AND SOULS, Isabel Vincent, Random House of Canada, $ 34.95; Photo 3, THE PROSTITUTES soon set her straight. Isaac Boorosky was a ruffian, they said. He bought and sold women, and he had bought her, Sophia Chamys.
Women who deserved better: The hidden story of Jewish prostitutes in fin-de-siecle South America
by Shelagh Plunkett
Special to the Sun
November 12, 2005
BODIES AND SOULS
The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas
BY ISABEL VINCENT
Random House Canada, 276 pages ($34.95)
history I In her book, Bodies and Souls, Isabel Vincent tells a tragic tale. Sadly, it is neither a new story nor one we have outgrown and relegated to history. Her book is about women, specifically poor Jewish women, sold into slavery, forced into prostitution and discarded by their religious community.
Bodies and Souls pieces together the lives of three women -- Sophia Chamys, Rachel Liberman and Rebecca Freedman -- who, along with thousands of others, were entrapped by the Jewish crime gang Zwi Migdal. From the late 1860s to the early 1930s, the powerful gang trafficked young Jewish girls from the urban ghettos and rural shtetls of Eastern Europe to Argentina and Brazil.
In Latin America, the girls were forced to work in some of the 3,000 Argentinian brothels the crime gang ran with the tacit support of local police.
The South American Jewish communities knew about the brothels and the way in which these girls were brought and held there, but they refused to help. The young polacas were denied admission to the synagogues and denied Jewish burial rites and entrance to Jewish cemeteries. The communities labelled even the children and grandchildren of these women unclean.
Vincent, an investigative reporter for the National Post, describes the methods the Zwi Migdal used to entice young women. They're remarkably similar to those you'd find if looking into the same situation today. In Warsaw, a well-dressed man approached Sophia Chamys' father. Isaac Boorosky said his mother, living in Lodz, needed a maid. Sophia's father saw this as a chance for his daughter to escape the poverty of their shtetl. He knew about the "white slave trade" but hoped the elegant man was honest.
This is exactly the approach present-day traffickers take when recruiting girls in poverty-stricken areas of Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Promises of marriage or of a legitimate job in the city, stories of how good life was in the New World, where "everyone eats oranges every day," were used by Zwi Migdal recruiters in the last century, just as they are today.
Although this is an interesting parallel (and one Vincent acknowledges but doesn't pursue), the compelling aspect of Bodies and Souls is the story of how in 1924 the polacas of Rio de Janeiro founded the Society of Truth, an organization intended to provide support to the women in their old age. Through it, they established their own synagogues, bought land for their own cemeteries and performed burial rites on the bodies of those among them who died. These were strong women, determined to survive and build a better life for their children.
Unfortunately, the details of how they managed to do this are scarce. Rebecca Freedman, the last president of the Society of Truth, died in 1984 at age 103, long before Vincent began her research. The closest the author got to members of the society (disbanded in 1968) was to interview the custodian of its Rio de Janeiro cemetery, a man hired by Freedman, and to interview a journalist who had interviewed Freedman on her deathbed.
For the rest, Vincent relied on police records, archived documents, letters and the reminiscences of those willing or able to pass on rumours.
Vincent had difficulty getting descendants of the women to talk -- and, even, in some cases, to acknowledge that their grandmothers or aunts were among the polacas trafficked to Argentina and Brazil in the last century. To fill the gaps between scant documentation and interview subjects, she resorts to informed speculation. This carries the narrative along, but the result lacks the authority of concrete detail. The reader is left frustrated and unable to get close to the women the book is about.
To compensate, Vincent fills Bodies and Souls with background material. The book offers information on the Jewish Colonization Association, which sponsored immigrants to Argentina; describes the efforts of Jewish feminist organizations, whose volunteers met South America-bound ships and warned young female passengers about the dangers of talking to strange men; and examines work done by various organizations to halt the white slave trade.
Vincent also gives the reader vivid descriptions of European shtetl life, Brazilian and Argentinian slums, scenes from Latin American ports and colourful portrayals of the clothing and manners of Jewish pimps and prostitutes.
It's unfortunate that, despite her research, she was unable to provide the kind of details her readers are likely to crave once introduced to the women who founded the Society of Truth. These are compelling women; we want to know them better than we do by the end of the book. Regardless, Bodies and Souls is an interesting read and provides a glimpse of a little-known part of our past.
Shelagh Plunkett is a freelance writer on Saltspring Island. She last reviewed Helen Oyeyemi's novel, The Icarus Girl.
Photo: Courtesy of Tamiment Collection, New York University / A drawing that shows how young, naive, shtetl girls were often recruited into brothels by wily pimps, from the book Bodies and Souls, by Isabel Vincent.; Photo: BODIES AND SOULS: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas BY ISABEL VINCENT, Random House Canada, 276 pages ($34.95)
Journalist investigates dark chapter in Jewish history
By SHELDON KIRSHNER
Canadian Jewish News - November 24, 2004
"It was a huge challenge for a journalist to piece together this story," said Isabel Vincent, discussing her latest book, Bodies and Souls, which is bound to shock many readers.
Published in Canada on Nov. 5 by Random House, Bodies and Souls the first popular work on the subject in English explores a dark, hushed-up chapter of modern Jewish history.
During an 80-year period from the 1860s onward, a Jewish criminal gang, Zwi Migdal, lured thousands of young, impoverished, naive Jewish women from eastern Europe into prostitution.
Thinking they were going abroad to be domestics or factory workers, or simply duped into marriages of convenience, they found themselves confined in brothels in Latin America, the United States, South Africa, China and India.
Vincent, a Toronto-based writer of Portuguese ancestry who wrote for the National Post until recently, builds her narrative around three such women who ended up in Brazil and Argentina.
Considered unclean by the Jewish communities, they were shunned, as were their pimps. Ostracized, they formed synagogues and institutions. In Rio de Janeiro, they established their own cemetery.
Although decades have elapsed since Zwi Migdal's heyday, the topic is so sensitive that it is still very much off-bounds in Jewish circles in Rio and Buenos Aires. "In some quarters, there is still a stigma, a code of silence, about it," said Vincent.
She spent five long years researching the subject because of the difficulty of convincing people to speak openly about the polacas, the Jewish prostitutes from the shtetls and cities of eastern Europe.
Indeed, only about 10 per cent of the individuals she approached were willing to talk, and not one of their thousands of descendants agreed to be interviewed.
Despite the constant rebuffs, she did not despair. "I knew the information was there," said Vincent, whose last book was Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold and the Pursuit of Justice.
She immersed herself in the literature, reading what she could find in libraries, from Edward Bristow's Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery, 1879-1939 to Nora Glickman's The Jewish White Slave Trade and the Untold Story of Raquel Liberman.
Vincent also pored over Beatriz Kushnir's Portuguese language account of the Jewish slave trade, based on her MA thesis. "She was very helpful," Vincent said of Kushnir. "She handed over her archives to me."
In addition, Vincent scoured national, municipal and state archives in Brazil and talked to 28 women and men in Rio and Toronto whose first-hand or anecdotal knowledge of shtetl life and the workings of Zwi Migdal was of immense value.
To her regret, she did not have access to the most complete set of archives relating to Zwi Migdal. It was destroyed in 1994 when Iranian-abetted Muslim terrorists attacked a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires.
Vincent, however, was able to visit the prostitutes' cemetery in Inhauma, a Rio suburb, where 797 gravestones moulder away. The caretaker told her that the last burial was in the 1970s.
She was unable to read the cemetery's registry book, which disappeared several years ago. She believes that well-meaning "historians" who sought to erase a black mark on the past destroyed or hid it.
Vincent, 40, knew next to nothing about these women when she started her research. "I had heard references about the polacas in Brazil, but didn't know what they meant."
Once she was hooked, there was no turning back. "I thought there was a great human story to tell, and I felt sorry for these people. Although they were marginalized, they clung to their faith. That, to me, was so moving."
Vincent, whose parents immigrated to Canada in 1953, wrote two drafts of Bodies and Souls, the rights of which have been sold in Israel, Spain, Italy and Poland so far.
Her first draft was far too scholarly. "It read like a university text. Nearly all the sentences were footnoted," she said.
At her editor's suggestion, she revised the manuscript, making it fully accessible.
In her estimation, 10,000 to 15,000 Jewish women were caught in Zwi Migdal's net. Only a handful are still alive.
As far as she knows, Zwi Migdal was never active in Canada.
According to Vincent, the illicit trade has inspired novels O Ciclo das Aguas by the Brazilian Jewish writer Moacyr Scliar comes to mind and at least one samba.
Asked whether Jews are involved in South American prostitution today, she said, "I didn't look into that issue."
Zwi Migdal ring preyed on Jewish women
By SHELDON KIRSHNER
Canadian Jewish News - November 24, 2004
Shalom Aleichem, in his Yiddish short story The Man from Buenos Aires, wrote about a Jewish salesman from Argentina named Motek who was coy about the goods he sold. "I supply the world with merchandise, something that everybody knows and nobody speaks of," Motek said obliquely. "What do I deal in? Not in prayer books, my friend, not in prayer books."
When The Man from Buenos Aires was published in the early 20th century, men like the mysterious Motek, impeccably dressed and bejewelled, were riding high. Purveyors of the flesh trade, and members of a mainly Jewish criminal gang known as Zwi Migdal, which thrived from the 1860s to the 1930s, they were white slavers who preyed on young, impressionable, impoverished Jewish women from the backward shtetls and teeming ghettos of eastern Europe who dreamed of a better future in the Americas.
Promised work in factories or homes, or supposedly betrothed to the well-mannered visitors who lavished flattery and gifts upon them, these women were duped into prostitution in South America and the United States.
In Bodies and Souls (Random House Canada), Canadian journalist Isabel Vincent delves into that nether world of broken dreams, sordid brothels and tropical sunsets and produces a fascinating social history as partly seen from the perspective of three such women, Sophia Chamys, Rachel Liberman and Rebecca Freedman.
Vincent, an investigative reporter on the staff of the National Post until recently and the author of Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and the Pursuit of Justice, culled her material from archives, academic studies and interviews. Bodies and Souls is the first book I've read on this relatively little-known topic, but it has been the subject of monographs and newspaper articles, some in Portuguese.
At the height of its influence after World War I, Zwi Migdal controlled bordellos around the globe, from New York to Shanghai. But the focus of its activities was in South America, particularly in cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, which had fairly substantial Jewish communities.
Vincent estimates that Zwi Migal operated some 3,000 brothels in Argentina, most in Buenos Aires, and many in Rio. But lest the wrong impression is conveyed, she points out that Jewish criminals hardly had a monopoly on the international white-slave trade. Japanese and Chinese criminal gangs played the biggest role in the trafficking of women, but the venal gangsters in Zwi Migdal were not exactly minor players.
Although legions of Jewish women recruited by Zwi Migdal had no inkling of what awaited them overseas, many knew what to expect. Indeed, some became brothel owners and recruiters.
Not surprisingly, the Jewish community shunned the white slavers and prostitutes. They were banned from joining communal institutions, synagogues and burial societies. Jewish restaurants discouraged their patronage, while Jewish theatregoers were liable to leave their seats if they found themselves next to an "unclean" person.
Ostracized by their fellow Jews, the prostitutes in Rio formed their own burial society, the Jewish Benevolent and Burial Association, popularly known as the Society of Truth. In 1916, they bought land for their cemetery in the grimy suburb of Inhauma, which Vincent visited while researching this book. There she found 797 graves, all badly maintained, the last of which were installed in the 1970s.
Farther north, in Rio, Jewish prostitutes acquired a downtown building in the 1940s that they converted into a synagogue and administrative offices. According to Vincent, organizations along the lines of the Society of Truth were established in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires and New York, but they were largely run by the pimps.
Zwi Migdal, which had its origins in Poland, emerged in the 1890s under the guise of the Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society, just as the white-slave trade was taking off. A coalition of independent white slavers functioning as a corporation with a board of directors, Zwi Migdal spread its tentacles to Argentina, Brazil, India, South Africa and China. By the turn of the 19th century, they controlled thousands of women and turned annual profits of more than $50 million, a fabulous sum back then.
Claiming that they were not common criminals, Vincent says they had a bevy of lawyers at their disposal and bribed officials from ship stewards to government bureaucrats and police chiefs.
Under pressure from the Jewish community and the Polish embassy in Buenos Aires, which resented that a trade organization of pimps had been named after Poland's capital, Argentina ordered a government official, Martin Perez Estrada, to investigate the Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society.
Estrada, who had been on the pimps' payroll for years, finished his investigation in a only a week. His conclusion was that its members were upstanding citizens and beyond reproach. Argentina shelved his report, but when the Polish authorities complained to the foreign ministry, the pimps reacted with alacrity. They changed the society's name to Zwi Migdal ("the great power" in Yiddish), in honour of Luis Migdal, one of the society's earliest benefactors, whom respectable Jews considered a dreg of humanity.
Zwi Migdal representatives roamed eastern Europe far and wide, proffering gullible Jewish women allegedly decent jobs and proposals of marriage. "Believe me, these poor souls are waiting for me as though I were the Messiah," crows Motek in The Man from Buenos Aires.
Sophia Chamys, who shared a one-room thatch-roofed house with her parents and younger sister on the outskirts of Warsaw, was one of the victims whose story of hope and deprivation Vincent relates with aplomb. Like so many women of her class, Chamys married the pimp who passed himself off as a prosperous businessman. She wed him in a ceremony commonly referred to in Yiddish as a stille chupah, or "silent wedding."
These ritual marriages, Vincent explains, had absolutely no validity under civil law and suited the pimps. The stille chupah, which had been outlawed in some jurisdictions, entrapped ignorant women and robbed them of their civil rights. Typically, pimps travelled from shtetl to shtetl and acquired multiple wives in such ceremonies. In tow with their new "wives," the pimps boarded ships bound for South America. During the voyage, the pimps told them that they would work as prostitutes. If they resisted, they were beaten and raped.
Pimps lived the good life. Concerned with their appearance, they wore tailored suits, silk shirts, gold tie pins and diamond rings, applied fragrant oil to their hair and indulged themselves in pedicures.
The richest ones posed as legitimate businessmen, mostly as jewellers, tobacconists and clothing vendors. And they were terribly conceited. Vincent quotes one pimp as boasting, "The profession of pimp is nothing for an ordinary man to undertake. We must be administrators, instructors, comforters and experts in hygiene. We need self-possession, a knowledge of character, insights, kindness, firmness and self-denial; and above all things, perseverance."
An Argentine police report Vincent cites notes that Zwi Migdal was "set up like a commercial enterprise based on mathematical calculations and financial forecasts. These people are incredibly disciplined; they think of everything and pay a great deal of attention to the tiniest details."
The prostitutes in their thrall led miserable lives. In the filthy casitas of La Boca, a working-class district in Buenos Aires, they serviced upward of 70 men a day, and comported themselves with sadness, a French journalist wrote. More often than not, they had to hand over their initial earnings to pimps to reimburse them for the cost of their passage across the seas.
In Rio, their services were sought out mainly by sailors, small businessmen and new immigrants. Wealthier men, from captains of industry to politicians, gravitated toward French prostitutes. When the first of the Jewish women from Poland arrived in Rio, the red-light district in Mangue was dominated by blacks. They had only recently gained their freedom from slavery, which was abolished in Brazil in 1888.
The desperate poverty of New York's Lower East Side fed Zwi Migdal's appetite as well. The majority of Jewish prostitutes there toiled in so-called "50 cent and dollar" houses unfit for human habitation.
During the 1930s, the police in Argentina began cracking down on Jewish pimps, charging them with "illicit association" under the criminal code. In the face of constant raids, they fled to Uruguay and Brazil, transferring their operations to Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia. Zwi Migdal would never again attain the kind of unrivalled power and influence it wielded in Argentina. But the legacy it left behind remains a stain on modern Jewish history.
Traduced and abandoned
By Namoi Levine
Globe and Mail (Canada) - November 26, 2005
Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas
By Isabel Vincent - Random House Canada, 276 pages, $34.95
In her latest book, Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas, investigative journalist Isabel Vincent pays homage to a group of Jewish women from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Forced by poverty and despair to leave their homes, the girls, as young as 13, were shipped off to the Americas to satisfy the greed of the Jewish pimps who betrayed their hopes for marriage and a good life.
Their fathers, crushed by destitution and pogroms and desperate for the small amounts of money their daughters generated by the "sale," either believed or chose to believe that the girls were being married or, at least, being offered jobs. They allowed their daughters to go, often to save the rest of the family. This kidnapping, rape and forced prostitution of young Jewish women lasted from the end of the 1860s until the start of the Second World War.
Vincent's story is a combination of research and supposition, told largely through her patching together the lives of three of the women. Although few documents and records were kept, and many were destroyed, she has produced a sad but compelling tale. She tells us that this has been "the most difficult investigative work of her career," due, in part, to the code of silence and the stigma surrounding the lives of these women. If Vincent passes judgment, it is not on the women who sold themselves, but on the men, their co-religionists, whom they often thought they had married, and on those Jewish communities in the Americas who reviled them with cruel, dismissive contempt.
In telling the women's story, Vincent has also traced the history of the pimps, Jewish gangsters who formed a criminal band known as "the Zwi Migdal," which operated in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and New York. These Jews who sold other Jews had also escaped the filth, stench and despair of the shtetls by prostituting the girls. Scouting for the brothels, they had an eye for detecting "the milky skin, the outline of budding breasts, the full lips, the wisps of raven hair, all under the layers of filthy clothes, calloused hands and sense of defeat."
Having lured the girls into white slavery, the men tortured them into submission and bondage. If they complained, they were sold to the worst customers, often servicing up to 30 or 40 men a day, or auctioned off, forced to parade, naked, before the buyers. Feared and despised, the Zwi Migdal lived in high style, befriended and protected by the police and politicians whose hands they greased.
Despite their lost lives, many of the women found strength in each other. Banned from the Jewish community, they formed an "extraordinary religious and charitable organization," the Society of Truth. Denied access to Jewish culture, religion and burial grounds, they pooled their meagre resources to build a synagogue and to provide a ritual Jewish burial and cemetery for their members.
While Vincent never lets us forget the horror of these lives and their abandonment by "respectable" Jews, she also shows us their will to survive and to be Jewish. The last accountant and caretaker of the Society of Truth, Alberto da Costa, one of the few who loved the women, remembers them as "noble."
"In the end," he says, "we [he and his uncle] always respected them and their religion. We always saw them helping other people."
Yet, in the end, the women remain outcast for eternity, their graves huddled on the edge of a cemetery that had become a cursed place, seen by the superstitious as the repository of witches.
In the acknowledgments that precede this tale of sad women, Vincent tells us that it was difficult to convince people to talk about the Jewish prostitutes. She quotes another journalist, Zevi Ghivelder, who, in describing the women as the outcasts of Jewish society, referred to them as "the Jews of the Jews." The shame and disgust in which they were held by the rest of the Jewish community remains even today.
Vincent's research material and ability to find people who would talk were limited, but she has managed to bring these women back to life. Her imagination has embellished her research and, through her eyes, we can see their dreams, hopes and despair.
Their "tragic plight" ought to resonate not only with the Jewish people, of whom Vincent writes. We have heard and still hear of women in many countries who have been exploited and then blamed, shunned and reviled. Vincent has written an unsentimental book that compels us to consider our obligations to those who are the most vulnerable: the young, the poor and the unprotected. If we learn no lessons from the stories of these women, the shame is not theirs; it is ours.
Naomi Levine is a Winnipeg lawyer and journalist whose practice has included the prosecution and defence of, and inquiries into, sexual offences. She has a weekly radio column on CBC Manitoba, called Levine's Law.
The Forgotten Sisterhood--Ladies of the Night: The Trafficking of Jewish Women in South America From The 1880's to the 1930's and Trafficking Today
A Project Proposal for a Multimedia Interactive Museum Exhibit and Catalogue on the History of Trafficking and Jewish White Slavery in South America
Remember The Women Institute
Women have been exploited as prostitutes for thousands of years, and accounts of prostitution go back as far as the Bible, with the story of Tamar in the Jewish Scriptures and that of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament. Throughout recorded history, prostitutionproviding sexual services for paymenthas been a part of the human condition. In addition to the Bible, easter and western mythology, art, drama, literature, music, and archaeological finds all provide evidence. Different societies have dealt with the issue in diverse ways, ranging from legitimized acceptance to criminalization. Between these two extremes, prostitution has been considered everything from "a necessary evil" to an immoral blight on society. Whenever and wherever prostitution has been part of history, women have been victimized and demeaned. Since the earliest crusade by Josephine Butler at the end of the nineteenth century in England, the question of prostitution and trafficking has been addressed and condemned on an international scale by feminists and human rights organizations.
The Remember the Women Institute, in cooperation with Suzanna Sassoun & Associates and The Center for the Study of Women and Gender, University of São Paulo, has developed and is currently seeking funding for a multi-media project, with accompanying catalogue, about the history of the victims of the Zwi Migdal cartel and other Jewish traffickers of Jewish women from Europe to Argentina and Brazil from the late nineteenth century until the 1930s. The exhibit depicts the background, lives, and organized social and religious institutions of these so-called Polacas (their derogatory name in South America), forced into prostitution by the Zwi Migdal and others. To place their story in context, other prostitution in the early twentieth century, trafficking today, and prostitution's impact on society are also addressed. This multi-media exhibit is intended to travel internationally, especially in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Israel.
The project emphasizes that trafficking, or white slavery, always involves enticing or abducting women from their native country and dehumanizing them by taking away their former identity (including holding their passports and terrifying threats). The Polacas were, in a sense, displaced persons, and they suffered from prejudice on three levels. They were shunned and considered "the other" by the greater Jewish community, and also used by biased and xenophobic non-Jews as a pretense for antisemitism against the Jewish community. In addition they were the victims of gender injustices in a patriarchal society.
While this exhibit focuses on Brazil and Argentina, the trafficking of Jewish women by the Zwi Migdal group and others had other destinations, such as the United States, the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, South Africa, India, and China. The story of the Polacas is part of the history of deep poverty and severe antisemitism in Eastern Europe, which resulted in mass immigration to the New World. In a hopeless situation, sometimes duped and sometimes willingly, the young women who became known as Polacas were grasping at a straw that they believed would help them out of their miserable situation. Their journeys generally were via an English port and/or Hamburg, and there are ample records of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations in England and Germany tried to warn the young women of their precarious destinies.
The Jewish women known as Polacas came from Europe as immigrants and became prostitutes in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Most of the trafficking took place between the 1880s and the 1930s. The women came mainly from Russia, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Galicia, and "Mittel Europe" in general, passing through European ports such as Hamburg or London. Sometimes they arrived under false pretenses of promises of marriage, and sometimes, to escape the despair of their lives in Europe. (Some were already prostitutes in Europe or knew they were destined for the bordellos of South America.) In Brazil, there is documentation of groups of Polacas in such cities as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Porto Alegre, and even locations in the Amazon. In Argentina the hub was Buenos Aires, with other operations in such locations as Rosario, and nearby Montevideo was also linked to the Argentinean trafficking.
The exhibit will highlight aspects of the lives of the Polacas in Brazil. It will examine their ability and desire to maintain their religious identity within a community that shunned them. They had an entire Jewish infrastructure of their own, complete with synagogues and cemeteries constructed by the traffickers, cultural activities, and social welfare. Their welfare societies lasted until the late 1960s--well after the prostitutes and madams retired. The exhibit will examine why the Polacas and their history have generally been excluded, erased, or downplayed in the historical account of Brazil's Jewish communities.
The Jewish prostitutes constituted a small percent of the prostitutes in Brazil and a small part of the Jewish population. However, antisemites used the press and other means to inflate the perceived number of Jewish prostitutes in order to give Jews a negative image. The Polacas were also continually shunned, ostracized, and harassed within their own Jewish communities, even though some of them had been duped into prostitution or had become prostitutes because they had no other means of support or communal assistance for their sustenance. Thus, they were victims of antisemitism, as well as gender bias. Jewish prostitution was largely controlled by a multinational crime syndicate founded in Poland that evolved into the Zwi Migdal. This syndicate began operating in Buenos Aires in the 1880s and in Brazil soon afterward, and lasted until the 1930s.
This exhibition is intended to correct misconceptions and present the history of the Polacas in Brazil in an instructive, scholarly manner, in order to: 1) demonstrate how the Polacas retained their Jewish heritage against all odds; 2) give them their rightful place in history; 3) demonstrate the relationship between antisemitism, gender bias, and popular conceptions of the Polacas; and 4) counteract other irresponsible, opportunistic, and sensationalistic presentations.
Along with photographs, documents, and possible artifacts, the exhibit will use demographic charts that explain the number of Polacas within the general population and within the context of other prostitution in the locations at the time. There will also be maps of locations where he trafficking took place, the countries from which the women and came and the locales in South America where they arrived. There will also be an exhibit panel with text on terms.
The exhibit will also include information on the involvement of Jewish and other organizations to stop the trafficking, for example one founded by Berthe Pappenheim in Germany, the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women in England, the Jewish Colonization Society, and the Salvation Army. Furthermore, the efforts of the local Jewish communities to shun the Polacas and to later hide their history will be explored. For example, the São Paulo Jewish community shunned the Polacas even after their death. When the Chora Menino cemetery was dismantled in 1975 to make way for a highway, their remains were transferred to a special section in the Jewish cemetery in Butantã and they were reburied with small numbered headstones without names. It took some thirty years to finally have their names engraved on the stones, after pressure from concerned individuals in the Jewish community. The Cubatão (a suburb of the port city of Santos) Polacas' cemetery was abandoned until the year 2000, when the Chevra Kaddisha, the Jewish burial society, finally again yielded to pressure from concerned community members and restored it.
The exhibit will also demonstrate the popular culture that evolved from the world of the bordello. This will include tangos and other music, poetry, theatre, and novels. To complete the exhibit, the story of the Polacas will be placed in the context of other trafficking thriving today in such places as Israel, Kosovo, and the Far East. Material on recent governmental and NGO efforts to alleviate the situation will be included.
The exhibition will be mounted, directed, coordinated, and produced by Suzanna Sassoun, president and director of Suzanna Sassoun & Associates, an International Art Consulting Company based in São Paulo, and with scholarly and curatorial supervision by Dr. Rochelle Saidel, president and director of Remember the Women Institute, based in New York.
This multi-media project is planned to be ready to be presented in late 2006 in its first station, with its initial location to be defined. The next stations will be scheduled in an organized manner, with additional funding to be budgeted separately in each instance and venue.
Parallel Activities: A seminar will be an integral part of some of the exhibits, with the curator responsible for inviting scholars and experts to discuss and analyze the subject matter of the exhibit. The curator and producer also have plans for organizing a film festival, or films available in the form of video, during the exhibition. Contact will be made with directors of art cinema theaters for additional support for the success of this venture.
PROJECT COORDINATORS AND PERSONNEL:
Suzanna Krausz-Herzog Sassoun, president and director of Suzanna Sassoun & Associates, an International Art Consulting Company based in São Paulo, Brazil, will serve as producer of the project. Ms. Sassoun is a well-known art consultant and producer of exhibits, with clients in the USA, Europe, and Latin America. She is on the Advisory Board of The Remember the Women Institute.
Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel, president and director of Remember the Women Institute, will supervise all research and serve as curator. Dr. Saidel is a political scientist, a senior scientific researcher at NEMGE - The Center for the Study of Women and Gender at University of São Paulo, and a published author.
Research in Brazil will be carried out in cooperation with NEMGE - The Center for the Study of Women and Gender, University of São Paulo (USP). Founded in 1986, The Center for the Study of Women and the Social Relations of Gender at USP is one of the most prestigious interdisciplinary research centers for women's studies in Brazil. Researchers affiliated with the Center, faculty, graduate and undergraduate students work on a variety of scientific investigations that involve questions of how inequalities of race, gender, and class affect women, especially in Brazil and Latin America. USP, founded in 1934, is the finest institution of higher education in Brazil, recognized as one of the best in all of Latin America.
TRAFFICKING AS PORTRAYED IN FILM - HISTORY
LOST ZWEIG is the story of a Jewish-Austrian writer and his descent into despair and nihilism in a lost tropical paradise (based on "Death in Paradise", by Alberto Dines).
The film includes scenes that depict, in a fictionalized manner, a Rio de Janeiro brothel where Polacas, Jewish prostitutes speaking Yiddish, are working. The implication is that these women are victims of the Zwi Migdal cartel.
The following synopsis is from http://www.braziliancinema.com/films/zweig.html:
In 1942, after years on the run from persecution in Europe, the Jewish-Austrian writer, STEFAN ZWEIG, and his wife, LOTTE, arrive in Brazil to take up an offer of asylum from the Brazilian government. Zweig is given a hero's welcome in recognition of his earlier hymn to the glories and possibilities of his adopted country: "Brazil - Land of the Future". Exploiting his newly acquired star-status, he extracts assurances from President Vargas that a refugee state will be created in Brazil for other Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany.
He and Lotte settle into a home surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, and Zweig begins to feel that he has stumbled on a lost paradise. Enthralled by the native culture, he attends an African-Brazilian voodoo ceremony where, plunged into a trance, he foresees his own death.
As Zweig's efforts to pressure the Brazilian government into creating his safe haven founder, his optimism evaporates. Depressed by the cynicism of government officials, he finds himself wondering whether his adopted country isn't as corrupt and poisoned as his homeland.
Lotte, for her part, has noticed her husband's depression. When he shares his increasingly suicidal thoughts with her, she assures him that wherever he goes, she will follow. They bid farewell to their friends, telling them that they are embarking on a long journey, before swallowing cyanide capsules, and lying down to die.
Argentine Jewry's dark secret
By Rona Kupferboim
YNet - May 25, 2007
New book reveals story of Jewish association of pimps that operated in country in late 19th and early 20th century, and was involved in women trade and rape. 'This is a silenced story, ' author says, 'The Jewish community in Argentina remembers it well, but badly wants to keep it under wraps'
Superintendent Julio Elsogray was a strange kind of Buenos Aires cop because he would not take bribes from the pimps who dominated the city in the early 20th century. Eventually, therefore, he was the man who managed to stop them. He did that thanks to a brave whore named Rachel Lieberman, who dared file a complaint against the Zwi Migdal Organization - an association of Jewish women traders.
Thus, in 1930 the two managed to shut down the only association of Jewish panders in the world after 60 years of activity. The Zwi Migdal group was an organization that traded in women while its members wore tefillin and built themselves a synagogue, and their story is both embarrassing and exciting. It involved loads of money, corrupt politicians, violent sex, international women trade, hard brutality, rape, and cheating, all lightly spiced with yiddishkeit and God-fearing traditions.
"This is a silenced story," said writer and poet Ilan Sheinfeld, whose book "The Tale of a Ring" relates the story of that dark period. "The Jewish community in Argentina remembers it well, but badly wants to keep it under wraps because it is a disgrace. There is very little material in Hebrew about this affair."
Buenos Aires. Women import business blossomed
Intermittently researching his book for 11 years, Sheinfeld traveled to Buenos Aires twice, learned Spanish, and "established ties with Argentinean Jews who knew about the story. I had to peel off layer after layer, convince people to talk, and obtain materials. When you closely examine the affair, you can tell why it was kept secret so far."
Remonta - Fresh flesh shipment
Argentina of the second half of the 19th century was an attractive destination for Jews who fled Russian and Polish pogroms and poverty, headed for the New World. In those decades, Buenos Aires grew rapidly and with it, the Jewish community. A Hevra Kadisha was established and a newspaper named Mundo Israelita was published as the Jewish community members strove to settle down and become part of the new place. They wished to establish themselves as law-abiding and moral people.
This, however, did not apply to all of the Jews. Hundreds of Jewish immigrants chose a different path and became rufianos - pimps, prostitution peddlers. Given that at the time, there was one woman for 10 men, sexual services were in high demand. The temptation to make a profit in this area was plain to see. So the Jewish rufianos stepped in, supplied the demand, and soon enough seized control over the entire prostitution business in Argentina.
"Jews were very prominent among women traders, both as dealers and as employers of prostitutes, particularly in Argentina, Brazil, Poland, and Galicia (Russia)," wrote Yehuda Rimerman in "Prostitution and the Deviant Girl," a book that reviews the history of Jewish prostitution in the modern era. The Argentinean pimps created a total, most effective world, with predefined codewords, rules, and methods of operation. For example, a trip abroad to bring a new shipload of fresh girls was called remonta, a term taken from the horse market.
Here is how it worked: A well-mannered and elegant man would appear one day in a Jewish shtetl in Poland or Russia. He notified the local community and posted an ad in the shul saying he was looking for nice young women to work in the houses of rich Jews in Argentina or even marry them. Despairing with the pogroms and dreadful economic situation, the girls' parents would respond favorably and give their daughters away, hoping to give them a new start.
The girls, mostly aged 13 to 16, packed a small bag, bid their families a sobbing farewell, and boarded the ships to Argentina accompanied by a stranger, certain they are off to a better future. Their training period often started on the way there, on the ship, and was always a cruel and brutal affair. The young virgins were broken in - raped, beaten, starved, and locked in cages. Some of them were married off to local men so that they could obtain entry visas. Far from their families, without friends or knowledge of the language, they started serving men, their bodies belonging to the Jewish rufianos.
A cemetery fit for pimps
The largest bordellos of Buenos Aires housed 60 to 80 sex slaves. There were bordellos all over Argentina, but most of them were in the big city, in the Jewish quarter, on Junin Street.
Yet, as the whorehoses and pimps prospered, the Jewish community rejected them. Articles in the local press condemned them and, in 1885, the community established a Jewish Association for the Protection of Women and Girls. Ads posted on the walls in the Jewish quarter called on the locals not to rent their shops to the rufianos. On their part, the pimps very much wanted to be part of the community. The wealthiest among them used to pick a new girl every night and take her out to the theater, "which was the center of cultural life in the city. Jewish theater was very successful then," Sheinfeld said.
"The Jewish communities used to throw fund-raising parties, importing European star performers. The pimps would show up every night because they intended to show off their merchandise, wished to maintain their status, and also wanted be like everybody else. This is why they made donations, which made the community deliberate whether it wanted their money. On the one hand, the community needed money to build public buildings, but on the other hand, it was 'dirty' money and by taking it they feared they would be legitimizing or tacitly accepting the criminals' exploitation of women. This ended one night when Nahum Sorkin, a well-known Zionist activist, stood outside the theater and physically stopped the rufianos from entering. Next, they were banned from the synagogues, and to top it all, they were refused burial in the Jewish cemetery.
This was too much for the rufianos. It is one thing to be banned from the theater or community balls, but eternal rest is a different story. They formed an association of charity among its members. On 7 May 1906, when there were already half a million Jews in Argentina, the Jewish pimps registered legally as the Zwi Migdal Association, named after one of its greatest contributors. Naturally, the group later split and the splinter, led by Simon Rubinstein, established its own society named Ashkenazum. Once officially recognized, both associations bought plots of land on the outskirt of Buenos Aires and established their own cemeteries there.
Jewish cemetery in Buenos Aires
The Zwi Migdal Organization reached its peak in the 1920's, when some 430 rufianos controlled 2,000 whorehouses with 4,000 women. The network was well organized and its members cooperated closely to protect their interests. Prostitutes that failed to satisfy their clients were beaten, fined, or taken to work in provincial houses. Every business transaction was logged. The rufianos even held a meat market where newly arrived girls were paraded naked in front of traders in places such as Hotel Palestina or Cafe Parisienne. These activities went on undisturbed because they were frequented by government officials, judges, and reporters. City officials, politicians, and police officers were paid off. The pimps had powerful connections everywhere.
The hijo de puta judge
The rufianos' audacity eventually led to their demise. It happened when they refused to forgo their income from the work of one woman, Rachel Lieberman from LódÅ¨, Poland. She, like so many others, was tempted to travel to Buenos Aires answering a matrimonial ad, but was taken to Jonin Street where she was forced to prostitute. In desperation, she contacted Superintendent Julio Elsogray. She heard his name mentioned on the street as one who would not take Zwi Migdal's money and was actually looking for ways to destroy the organization. She slipped into his office one day and gave a detailed account of the connections among the various pimps in the organization management. Her testimony was reason enough to launch an extensive investigation. This time, unlike on previous occasions that led to nothing, the findings reached Dr. Rodriguez Ocampo, a judge who would not take Zwi Migdal bribes either.
The lengthy trial ended in September 1930, with 108 detainees. "The very existence of the Zwi Migdal Organization directly threatens our society," the judge wrote in his verdict, handing down long prison terms. Nevertheless, while in prison, the pimps pulled some old strings, appealed their sentences in January 1931, and senior Justice Ministry officials left only three of the convicts in jail, discharging the rest. When the media reported this, the public was very upset and pressured the authorities to reverse the discharge decision. Thereafter, hundred of pimps were deported to Uruguay. "Over the years, they slowly returned one by one, but the era of the huge brothels ended," Sheinfeld summed up this story.
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