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September 11, 2019 by

South America’s Jewish Prostitutes (Sex Slaves, Really)

It was shocking—and horrifying—to learn that more 100,000 Jewish women from Eastern Europe had been forced into sexual slavery in South America by other Jews willing and eager to exploit them.  Talia Carner’s new novel, The Third Daughter (HarperCollins) dramatizes this disgraceful chapter in Jewish history, and she talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the very contemporary impact this story continues to have.

YZM: How did you come to this subject?

TC: I had first become aware of the magnitude of global and historical sexual exploitation at the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing. An aging Filipina with an operatic voice cried to high heavens about her enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII as one of thousands of girls and women captured in the Pacific Rim. Then a teenager, she had been imprisoned in a “comfort station” to serve the soldiers’ sexual needs.

The plight of kidnapped women forced into sexual slavery touched me deeply, and in my head it was narrated by the Filipina’s haunting voice. In subsequent years I read about sex trafficking and attended presentations by UN-affiliated NGO’s in New York City, where I live.

A snippet of the history of girl victims lured from beleaguered Eastern European Jewish communities to South America had come to my attention through Hebrew literature. My interest was reawakened when I stumbled upon a short story by Sholem Aleichem, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” (now in my own translation on my website). I googled the subject and was appalled to learn how much information was hiding in plain sight about Zwi Migdal, the legal trafficking union. Yet, the estimated 150,000 to 220,000 Jewish women exploited by its members had been forgotten, lost in the goo of history. 

YZM: Jews, themselves so exploited, exploited other Jews?

TC:  I felt shock and disgust, and after writing a book about Zwi Migdal I still feel the horror of the pimps’ callousness, cold-heartedness, and cruelty. These traffickers treated the captured girls like property—the way whites in the USA enslaved blacks, who then became their property forever. By Argentine law, these girls belonged to the brothels or the pimps for life. If their pimp died and no one else was running his brothel, Zwi Migdal reassigned “his” prostitutes to other union members.

I have no explanation for this Jew-on-Jew crime, other than to look at the effect of trauma on human beings in general, who can become immune to the pain and suffering of others.  Maybe as a nation, we suffered so much trauma that individuals within our society showed these symptoms. Since there are other recorded instances of Jewish mafias that operated brazenly within the Jewish communities of New York City and elsewhere, it seems that in some pockets of population the prevalence of crime is a matter of degree. We view ourselves as a people of virtue and high values and find it hard to believe that Jew-on-Jew crime may thrive wherever the boundaries of decency and law can be pushed.     

YZM: Did any of the enslaved women manage to escape their captivity? 

TC: There were a few recorded cases of prostitutes who married clients and moved away.  Some women simply disappeared, and no one knew what had happened to them; it is unclear whether they had escaped or were murdered. Given the extremely limited employment choices for women at that time, it is unlikely that many could have escaped into the vast, wild lands of Argentina or Brazil and made a living any other way. 

YZM: You’ve mentioned the librarian in Buenos Aires—and possibly others—who tried to downplay this shameful story.  

TC: Other than the librarian in at the AMIA building [the center for Argentine Jewish life], who suddenly forgot her English, no one has downplayed the story. No one I’d talked to had ever heard of it! With the novel launch, though, it takes courage to swallow the bitter pill of truth. Some people prefer that I not tell a story that shows Jews in a bad light—mirroring the doubts I struggled with myself. Others embrace my mission of honoring the victims by taking the lesson of this ugly past and applying it to activism against the evil of human slavery today. Tikun Olam is one of our highest Jewish values.

 YZM: How did you get the information that informs the novel?

TC: There was a tremendous amount of information available through translated documents, books, and academic publications—as well as photos from that time and place.  Armed with that material, it was a short leap for my imagination to paint the pictures that brought it all to life: to hear the sounds, smell the smells, feel the weather on my skin, and view entire scenes. Most importantly, once I sat in front of my computer, the emotions related to my character’s difficult situations flowed directly into the keyboard, seemingly without first sifting through my brain.

I had been to Buenos Aires three times, but I don’t know Spanish, and since the story had taken place in the late 1800s, I hired two freelance researchers in Argentina. For example, I worked with a map of Buenos Aires, and if my protagonist walked from point A to point B, I had my researchers verify the names of the streets 120 years ago and identify buildings in photos. For better texture I presented both—a man and a woman—with the same questions about clothes, food, and architecture since I could extrapolate more nuanced details when crossing both researchers’ answers.  

For historical accuracy, I consulted the director of Jewish archives in Buenos Aires, who, thankfully, knew English. She also read the final manuscript.

Once the protagonist, Batya, started dancing tango, what choice did I have but to learn it myself? I needed to write with authenticity about tango—and the passion associated with this form of dance. For almost a year I took private tango lessons and occasionally spent an evening at a milonga in a close embrace with total strangers (also my reason to quit tango once my research was done). 

YZM: Despite the terrible things that happen to her, Batya retains her faith in God’s goodness and mercy. Care to comment? 

TC: Like many Jewish girls, Batya had no formal education, and had only basic knowledge of Jewish practices. But being Jewish was the prostitutes’ identity, deeply anchored in their Yiddish culture. Unlike many other enslaved girls, Batya had her spirit to prop her, and even though she believed that God had forgotten her, or punished her, or regarded her with contempt, this very world-view assumed an absolute faith in His existence. Batya’s lifeline was hope, and she clung to that flimsiest of threads. That hope to bring her family out of Russia was conditioned on God’s showing His benevolence. When events progressed in her life, she believed each was His mysterious ways, beyond human comprehension. For example, learning of Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s incredible initiative to free the Jews from the Czar, Batya thought of him as the second Moses, and that could only happen if God had planned this rescue of His people.

I’d like to mention the burial ritual that the prostitutes so cared about. Shunned by the Jewish Burial Society, they were obsessed with the need to purify themselves from the filth of their lives in order to be accepted unsullied into God’s other world. Both in Argentina and Brazil, the prostitutes established their own burial societies and cemeteries, which were the ultimate demonstration of their faith. 

YZM: Sex trafficking and sexual enslavement are problems that persist even today; do you think The Third Daughter can have any bearing on that? 

TC: Is the role of writing to entertain or to educate? To thrill or to motivate? The Third Daughter, combined with my speaking events, provides me with opportunities to educate audiences and to motivate them for action. If the novel becomes a platform for change initiated by readers, then I, as an author, will be very proud.

 

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the Fiction Editor at Lilith and the award-winning author of eight novels and twenty-eight books for children. She is also the editor of two essay collections and her short fiction, essays and articles have appeared in numerous national and literary magazines. Visit her at www.yonazeldismcdonough.com or www.facebook.com/yzmcdonough


  • Nina Barragan

    Very interesting!
    I discussed these topics—the white slave trade, the Jewish colonies, Baron Maurice de Hirsch—in Losers and Keepers in Argentina, my book of fiction that was part of the Jewish Latin America series from the University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
    Good to see the subject re-visited.
    Nina Barragan