When The Streets Were Paved With Tragedy

Nonfiction

By Holly Lebowitz Rossi

Published December 30, 2005, issue of December 30, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas

By Isabel Vincent

William Morrow, 288 pages, $25.95.

* * *

Memory is a central concept in Judaism. When someone dies, we say that he or she lives on in how he or she is remembered by others. Countless museum exhibits, oral histories, films, books and archives that memorialize the Holocaust repeat the mantra, “We will never forget.”

Conversely, the biggest insult that any Jew can face is to be forgotten — by fellow Jews, by history, by the country in which he or she lived. This was the fate that nearly awaited the Jewish “shtetl girls,” who were lured to South America by wealthy-looking men who promptly sold them into lives of prostitution. Thankfully, Isabel Vincent, a journalist who spent five years researching these women and their situation, rescues them from obscurity in her new book, “Bodies and Souls.”

Vincent introduces us to three women who illuminate three very different aspects of the shameful reality of white slavery that existed in Latin America between 1860 and 1939. Sophia Chamys excitedly came to the Americas with Isaac Boorosky, a pimp who she believed — at some level, until her death — was her husband; Rebecca Freedman first became a prostitute in New York and then went on to work for and lead the Society of Truth, an organization devoted to giving Jewish prostitutes a proper Jewish burial, and Rachel Liberman was instrumental (at great personal risk) in helping police plan a series of raids of the Zwi Migdal crime syndicate.

One of the most profound ideas that Vincent gets across is the sense of cosmic disappointment that is common to the three women. We have all heard horror stories of shtetl life, the violence and fear that lurked around every corner — but to read about how America turned out to be nearly as terrible for these eager girls is almost as heartbreaking as the physical pain and degradation that the prostitutes endured.

The narrative arc of the book, from Sophia’s crushed naiveté to Rachel’s open resistance, makes Vincent’s work a deeply Jewish story where out of abandonment, suffering and disillusionment come self-determination and a fierce survival instinct. Ultimately the shock and shame of learning about the atrocities that Jewish pimps inflicted on their modest shtetl sisters is somewhat rescued by the nobility that many of the women managed to salvage for themselves.

If Vincent has misstepped at all in this book, it is largely in her overuse of theoretical language: “Maybe, in order to make her feel better about her situation, Madame Nathalia told Sophia that she was one of the lucky girls.” “It must have taken a tremendous effort of will for Julio Alsogaray to remain calm throughout the lengthy interrogation.” Nearly every page contains some similar stylistic hedging.

This linguistic tic seems more a mark of Vincent’s careful reporting than of mere misjudgment, especially since, as she notes, most of the 20,000 women who were involved in the trafficking could not read or write. Historical records were quite hard to come by. But reading “might have,” “must have,” “may have” and “perhaps” over and over again throughout the book had the net effect of leaving the reader questioning how sure Vincent was of even those things she did report as fact: She knew that “tin cups and utensils were set out on coarse blankets on the whitewashed floors” of a Buenos Aires immigrants’ hotel, but had to say, “flustered, Sally must have also shown the stranger her first-class ticket”?

Still, though it’s annoying, this stylistic choice further highlights the sad reality of the subjects of Vincent’s book: how history, religion and shame conspired to threaten these Jewish prostitutes with that most dire of prospects — to be forgotten. There was sparse historical record, few survivors and even fewer family members who were willing to speak openly with Vincent. One might wish that Vincent had opted instead to write a work of historical fiction in which she would not have to constantly apologize for her lack of reportable material. But there is a certain amount of intellectual honesty in her choice. It is not merely that she resisted the temptation to falsely beef up her work; by choosing to acknowledge this story as a real chapter in history, Vincent affords her subjects the dignity of not being “spoken for,” as they were so often and so cruelly during their lives.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Mass.






Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • 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.