The Other Disappeared

History Lesson

By Jay Michaelson

Published April 27, 2007, issue of April 27, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The architecture of Jewish memory has undergone explosive growth in recent years: Holocaust memorials and museums, plaques, donor walls — and works of literature, like “The Ministry of Special Cases,” Nathan Englander’s new novel about Argentina’s “disappeared,” the thousands of students, dissidents and labor leaders tortured and killed during seven years of military dictatorship. Between 10% and 20% of those victims were Jews, and Englander’s novel is the (fictional) story of one of them.

The protagonist of “The Ministry of Special Cases” seems at first to be a quintessentially Englanderian fantastic creation: Kaddish Poznan, son of a prostitute and member of a seemingly fictional underground Jewish community, the Society for the Benevolent Self, whose wacky characters have such names as Talmud Harry and Toothless Mazursky. Kaddish hires himself out to the community’s descendants — like Mazursky’s son, a doctor who plays a pivotal role in the book — erasing their family names from their ancestors’ tombstones, and thus any trace of the now-wealthy families’ dubious origins.

Fiction, right? Not entirely. Actually, as recounted in such studies as Isabel Vincent’s “Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas” (William Morrow, 2005), there was a real Society for the Benevolent Self: a mutual-aid society known as Chesed Shel Emet (The Benevolent Society of Truth), set up by women who were forced into prostitution by Jewish criminal gangs between 1860 and 1939. During this period, thousands of Jewish girls were sold into slavery by such gangs as Warsaw’s notorious Zwi Migdal, with Buenos Aires being the primary trading post between Eastern Europe and South America. According to Vincent, the Zwi Migdal cartel earned $50 million a year at its height. And by 1913, Argentina had more than 3,000 brothels, an uncounted number of which were run by Jews.

Not the most honorable chapter in our people’s history — and for that reason, one that has been deliberately effaced, like the gravestones that Kaddish vandalizes. Like Englander’s fictionalized version, the Society of Truth even had to run its own cemetery, as the mainstream communities in Buenos Aires shunned these victims of the sex trade for their “sin,” and marginalized their children, as well (hijo de puta, ben zona and other euphemisms for “son of a whore” are insults in many languages). The Society closed in 1968, and most Jews have been happy to forget it ever existed.

Kaddish’s erasure of memory is an obvious (some might say too obvious) foreshadowing of the Argentine junta’s attempts to uproot any history of the “disappeared.” But it also greatly complicates what would otherwise be a simple good-guy/bad-guy polarity in the novel. Granted, excommunication and ostracism are not the same as torture and murder, but our own ignorance of this chapter of Jewish history makes us all — not merely the “bad guys” of the junta, or the Argentine Jews in the book — complicit in a form of willful cultural amnesia. Indeed, some early reviews of “The Ministry of Special Cases” have assumed that Englander simply invented the Society for the Benevolent Self, treating it as a fictional creation as he did the rabbi in his “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” who prescribes visits to a prostitute to a man unable to obtain sexual release.

But these prostitutes were real, not fictional. They had names, like Rebecca Freedman, the woman who founded the Society in Buenos Aires. Or Rachel Liberman, whose family forced her into prostitution but who fought back, earning her freedom and agitating for prosecution of the Jewish pimps. Many more names have been erased — disappeared, if you will. But as Englander’s novel reminds us, there is no such thing as a perfect erasure — or a perfect victim.

Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.