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.