The Jewish Prostitutes of South America (Series: The Writing Life)


Ms. Vincentis the author of Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas 1860 to 1939 (William Morrow & Company, 2005).

In the summer of 2002 just as I felt I was beginning to make progress on the research for my book Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas, the Brazilian national soccer team won the World Cup, becoming the first team in history to win the Earth’s most prestigious soccer championship four times.

Moments after the victory, Brazilians across the country took to the streets to celebrate. In Rio de Janeiro, where I was living at the time, the drug-lords who ruled the hillside shantytowns celebrated with loud bursts of gun fire which seemed to echo throughout the city. Thousands of people, dressed in the green, blue and yellow of the Brazilian flag, sambaed on the beaches and blocked traffic.

Of course, none of this should have had any influence on my research into the lives of Jewish women from Eastern Europe who were forced to work as prostitutes in Brazil, Argentina and the United States between 1860 and 1939. But when a proud nation of 180-million people decides to go into spontaneous party mode, the country seems to grind to a halt.

The National Library, where I had so painstakingly tracked down rare historical texts shut down for the victory celebrations. The National Archives, where I had become an almost daily visitor, poring over the yellowing copies of ships’ manifests dating to the beginning of the twentieth century, simply shut down without further notice.

But compared to the other problems I would encounter in my research into what is still considered a taboo subject in Brazil and Argentina, the World Cup victory seems today like a pleasant diversion.

In hindsight, I embarked on the research into the white slave trade rather naively. I certainly never expected “historians” in South America to escort me out of their offices and homes when I mentioned the Jewish prostitutes. I didn’t expect to find many of the police documents and hospital records pertaining to the thousands of impoverished women forced to work as prostitutes and shunned by their fellow Jews to have simply vanished without a trace.

I spent five years searching in vain for the registry book from the cemetery that the prostitutes established for themselves in 1916, in Inhauma, a bleak industrial suburb on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. It was during my first visit to the cemetery – a sad, overgrown tropical graveyard of broken gravestones and eerie silences – that I resolved to write a book about these women. I later found out that they had come to Brazil, to Argentina, the United States and even to South Africa and India to join their new “husbands.” Many of the women I profiled had been “married” in their down-at-heel shtetls to elegantly dressed strangers who promised them a better life in the New World. But once they arrived at their destinations, they were shuttered in brothels and cut off from their families and their coreligionists.

At the cemetery in Inhauma, you can still make out some of their faces in the sepia-toned plaques affixed to their graves. For decades, they have been condemned to silence, their stories still a source of deep shame for many of their descendents.

This was the reason that the registry book at the Inhauma cemetery had gone missing, or at least it was the theory of the cemetery’s faithful custodian, who has lived next door to the graveyard for the better part of the last forty years. Yes, there had been a registry book once, he told me. But after the final burials in the 1970s, it had simply disappeared, as had the regular visitors who came to pay their respects to the dead.

“Nobody comes here anymore,” said the custodian Daniel Rodrigues, who regularly clears the crude stone pathways of weeds and tries as best as he can to keep the cemetery from turning into a total ruin. In recent years the drug traffickers from the neighboring shantytown, known as the Wet Rat Favela, have scaled the cemetery walls and pried open the graves in order to hide their weapons and drugs from police.

“The people buried here came to Brazil to suffer,” said Rodrigues, on one of my visits to Inhauma. “And now their stories are forgotten.”

But as soon as I walked past the cemetery’s iron gates, which are adorned with a large Star of David, I was determined to tell those stories. My book details the stories of three such women. The first, thirteen-year-old Sophia Chamys, arrived in the country from a shtetl near Warsaw in the 1890s. Rebecca Freedman, the most famous of the prostitutes, arrived in 1916, and devoted her life to founding the women’s synagogue and running the burial society. The third, Rachel Liberman, sailed to Buenos Aires with her two children in the early 1920s, and later testified in court against the Zwi Migdal,the Warsaw- and Buenos Aires-based mafia that trafficked in Jewish women. Liberman’s testimony eventually led to the break-up of the powerful mafia.

At times, writing about the lives of these women seemed an impossible task, but the more difficult the research, the more inspired I became to see it through to its conclusion. There were almost no written histories or letters written by the women themselves to draw on because the majority of the women forced into prostitution were illiterate. Instead, I pieced together individual stories from police records, academic studies and interviews. I was lucky enough to find the minutes of meetings for the Society of Truth, the prostitutes’ mutual aid organization in Rio, dating back to the 1930s, and stretching into the 1960s. I was also lucky enough to find the Society’s final accountant, an elderly black man with a noble disposition.

“There was nobody like them,” said the accountant, Alberto da Costa, who is now 82. “I will never forget them.” I found Alberto’s name among the minutes of the Society of Truth. I was sure it would be impossible to find him, and was quite startled when I plugged his name into the Rio telephone directory, and found myself speaking to him about women like Rebecca Freedman on the phone.

When he finally agreed to meet me in person, we sat sipping tiny cups of sweetened coffee in a high-rise shopping mall in Rio. I questioned Alberto about every aspect of the Society of Truth. At one point, Alberto had tears in his eyes when he spoke about the prostitutes. He told me that in the 1950s when they hired him to work at their synagogue, the women had taken up a collection to put him through school. He still wears the ring that they gave him when he graduated.

“I’ll speak to you,” he confided to me. “I want to honor their memory.”

With Bodies and Souls, I hope I have done just that.

Other Articles in the Series: The Writing Life

  • Peter N. Stearns

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    More Comments:

    David I Lieberman - 1/10/2006

    How gratifying it must be to have a virtually unlimited, all-but-unmoderated forum to indulge one's yen for reflexive Jew-bashing. You are to be congratulated, Mr. Thomas.

    Richard F. Miller - 1/8/2006

    Mr. Chamberlain: This seems to be an early instance of modern international sex trafficking, and for that reason (among others--depending on the quality of the writing), should have interest.

    I suspect that if one were to change the religion involved in this case of sex trafficking--say, from Jewish to Eastern Orthodox (today, so many Russian and Ukrainian women are entrapped by sexual slavers)--that Mr. Thomas and Ms. "Adelman" would not have bothered to post. (Mr. Thomas feels quite strongly that Jews have already far exceeded their quota of the world's sympathy--see his posts on Dagmar Barnouw's op ed piece and single post on Weinberg's review of Barnouw's latest tome.)

    Oscar Chamberlain - 1/8/2006

    If you think the writer deserves mocking, so be it. But mocking the suffering of these women is ugly.

    Lillian mocked their suffering. Frederick congratulated the mockery.
    Way to go.

    Frederick Thomas - 1/5/2006

    ...for saying the obvious so well. This book may have a single digit initial printing.

    Lillian Adelman - 1/4/2006

    Riveting and revealing!! What lonely lives they must have led, not to mention the degradation and shame they lived with, furthered by their Jewish pimps. It's a 'must buy' for ALL women