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

Overview

Isabel Vincent’s groundbreaking exploration brings to light a dark chapter in our recent history: the white slave trade and the international Jewish mobsters behind it.

From the end of the 1860s until the beginning of the Second World War, thousands of young, impoverished Jewish women, most of them from the hard-scrabble shtetls of Eastern Europe, were sold into slavery by a notorious gang of mobsters called the Zwi Migdal. While the enterprise controlled brothels in various ...

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Overview

Isabel Vincent’s groundbreaking exploration brings to light a dark chapter in our recent history: the white slave trade and the international Jewish mobsters behind it.

From the end of the 1860s until the beginning of the Second World War, thousands of young, impoverished Jewish women, most of them from the hard-scrabble shtetls of Eastern Europe, were sold into slavery by a notorious gang of mobsters called the Zwi Migdal. While the enterprise controlled brothels in various locales, its main centres of operation were Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and, to a lesser extent, New York City.

To recruit vulnerable country girls, pimps would target villages of desperate poverty, where they posed as respectable suitors of considerable means who had made their money abroad. They would arrange sham marriages to their victims and promise them an easy life in the New World. But once they’d crossed the ocean, these Jewish women found themselves caught up in the white slave trade.

Under frequently brutal conditions, the young women had to service the needs of a booming population of immigrant men. An added hardship to endure was being vehemently shunned by the “respectable” Jewish community. Banned from synagogue and reviled by their neighbors, the women were forbidden from partaking in the sacred Jewish burial ritual. So prostitutes banded together to form the Society of Truth, with the promise to do all could they could to help each other be buried in dignity. Through the society the women observed religious life together, setting up private synagogues and kosher kitchens. Cast aside by their community, they created their own: a society of love, honour to God and faith in each other.

With the determination and skill of her training as an investigative journalist, Isabel Vincent tells an unforgettable and gripping tale of a shameful chapter in recent history.

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Editorial Reviews

Toronto Star for Hitler's Silent Partners
“A thoroughly gripping tale.”
Vancouver Sun
“[A] disturbing and wonderfully narrated book... Hitler’s Silent Partners is gratifyingly precise.”
The Globe and Mail
A shameful tale, and necessary in the telling.
Toronto Star
“A thoroughly gripping tale.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Isabel Vincent has done a first- rate job of telling the story of Swiss perfidy during and after the war.”
Vancouver Sun for Hitler's Silent Partners
“[A] disturbing and wonderfully narrated book... Hitler’s Silent Partners is gratifyingly precise.”
San Francisco Chronicle for Hitler's Silent Partners
“Isabel Vincent has done a first- rate job of telling the story of Swiss perfidy during and after the war.”
Vancouver Sun for Hitler's Silent Partners
“[A] disturbing and wonderfully narrated book... Hitler’s Silent Partners is gratifyingly precise.”
Toronto Star for Hitler's Silent Partners
“A thoroughly gripping tale.”
San Francisco Chronicle for Hitler's Silent Partners
“Isabel Vincent has done a first- rate job of telling the story of Swiss perfidy during and after the war.”
Publishers Weekly
One of the saddest and most shameful stories in Jewish history has been suppressed for generations: between 1860 and 1939, thousands of poor young women from Eastern European shtetls were sold into sexual slavery by the Jewish-run Zwi Migdal crime syndicate, which controlled brothels on several continents. Focusing on three women, Vincent reconstructs the miserable lives of many of these women. One, sent to New York, saw 273 men in a two-week period. Many, unable to find support in the Jewish community-which ostracized them-committed suicide. And one, Sally Knopf, whose own uncle was a trafficker, escaped by disguising herself as a man. There is some triumph here: the Jewish prostitutes of Rio de Janeiro purchased their own cemetery in 1916 and ran their own burial society. By the time they bought their own synagogue in 1942, they had seen the demise of the Zwi Migdal gang. Unanswered questions, many raised by Vincent herself, abound. Clearly, poverty and lack of opportunity in Europe drove women into the trade, but why did they stay? Canadian journalist Vincent (Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold and the Pursuit of Justice) demonstrates her strength as a writer and storyteller, which enables her to at least partially retrieve this all-but-lost world. Agent, Dorian Karchmar. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Investigative journalist Vincent (Hitler's Silent Partners, 1997, etc.) uncovers a little-known slice of Jewish history. Sophia Chamys was just 13 when her father, a struggling peasant in a Polish shtetl, arranged her marriage to a well-dressed stranger from L-dz. Or, at least, that's what papa Chamys thought he was doing. But the marriage was a ruse: Sophia's "husband" was, in fact, a wheeler-dealer in an international prostitution ring run by a group of Jewish gangsters known as Zwi Migdal. Their web of brothels stretched from Poland to New York to India, but the nerve center was in Buenos Aires. That was where Chamys ended up, locked in a whorehouse, despised and shunned by the more respectable members of the city's Jewish community, which refused even to give the prostitutes proper burials. So the women themselves-largely illiterate, bitterly poor-banded together to form their own benevolent society: the Chesed Shel Ermess, or Society of Truth. At the forefront were Chamys and fellow prostitutes Rachel Liberman and Rebecca Freedman, who managed to get to a police station and leave a record of her life before she died of tuberculosis at 18. While the story is fascinating, this history would have been stronger if Vincent had made an argument or two, offered more analysis and availed herself of more of the scholarly literature on white slavery. Footnotes would also be welcome: the story of these prostitutes, after all, has long been buried (Jews in Buenos Aires reportedly avoid the subject still today), and citations documenting the awesome research surely required for Vincent to retell the tale would only add to the book's popular appeal. Riveting and disturbing, if somewhat incomplete.
From the Publisher
“Vincent demonstrates her strength as a writer and a storyteller, which enables her to at least partially retrieve this all-but-lost world.”
Publishers Weekly

“The book sheds light on an obscure page of history that is both tragic and uplifting. Victims of unscrupulous gangsters, the women portrayed in Bodies and Souls displayed spirit and strength in their solidarity with each other, their efforts on behalf of their children, and in their adherence to their faith and culture.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“Vincent has managed to bring these women back to life. Her imagination has embellished her research and through her eyes we can see their dreams, hopes and despair.”
The Globe and Mail

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060090241
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/12/2006
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,223,100
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Isabel Vincent is the author of Hitler’s Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and The Pursuit of Justice and See No Evil: The Strange Case of Christine Lamont and David Spencer. She is an investigative reporter for the National Post. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, Marie Claire and many other international publications. She lives in Toronto.

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Read an Excerpt

Bodies and Souls

The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas
By Isabel Vincent

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Isabel Vincent
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060090235

Chapter One

Gentlemen from America

Isaac Boorosky hated the shtetls. He hated the mud, which always formed a hard crust around his patent-leather shoes and splattered his finely tailored trousers. He hated the stench -- the slightly sweet smell of moldy hay mixed with human excrement and wood smoke -- that assaulted his nostrils and seeped into his clothes. He might have learned early on from his business associates to soak a silk handkerchief in rose water and hold it to his nose as he squelched through the mud, past the mangy dogs and the packs of filthy children dressed in rags, snot streaming from their noses. But the handkerchief trick worked only for a few minutes. Nothing could block out the odors of poverty. They lingered on, invading his pores, thrusting him into the past.

Had he really grown up in such a place?

Sometimes it may have seemed difficult to believe that he, Isaac Boorosky, man of the world, had spent his childhood in such a backwater, surrounded by Jewish peasants in their coarsely woven garments and their wooden clogs, their looks forlorn.

These were his people, to be sure, but he was -- what was the phrase they liked to use about him now? -- an American gentleman. Isaac was Russian by birth, but how convenient that his impressive array of travel documents -- all of them forged by a colleague in South America -- identified him variously as a Brazilian jeweler and an Argentine rancher. It's true he had "interests" in Brazil and Argentina, and even in South Africa. But the source of his lucrative business was still in Russia and Poland -- in the miserable shtetls that he so despised.

Still, he never corrected the Jewish peasants when they referred to him as "that gentleman from America" and treated him with the same reverence they would bestow on a nobleman or even a rabbi. His sudden wealth had taught him quickly to play the part of the elegant gentleman. He smoked cigars and drank champagne from crystal goblets, and his hands were always beautifully manicured. In Rio de Janeiro -- how far away it must have seemed to him now! -- his Spanish tailor sewed him beautiful silk-lined suits, which he was fond of wearing with a black silk top hat.

In what would become his last official portrait -- a sketch made by a Rio police officer shortly after his arrest in 1896 -- Isaac, a solidly built man with fleshy cheeks and almond eyes, is beautifully dressed in a frock coat, matching vest, starched collar, and silk cravat. His hair is jet black and oiled, his mustache perfectly trimmed.

Sophia Chamys had never met a man like Isaac, and years later in Brazil, when she told her story to the police, she could still recall the smell of the lavender oil that he used on his hair and the feel of his silk handkerchiefs against her skin. But most of all she remembered his hands -- so refined and smooth, like a child's. In the shtetl on the outskirts of Warsaw where Sophia shared a one-room thatch-roofed house with her parents and younger sister, people had working hands -- misshapen, permanently chapped, sunburned, and covered in hardened blisters.

Sophia's father had such hands, from years of working the fields, eking out a living by collecting hay that he sold to local farmers. Already at thirteen, Sophia had hands that were rough and calloused from helping her parents. Perhaps she instinctively hid them behind her back when she felt Isaac's gaze upon her for the first time.

They met in Warsaw, at Castle Square, under the bronze statue of King Sigismund III, who stood defiantly clutching a large cross on a tall majestic column, overlooking stately row houses and the fifteenth-century royal castle. The Chamys family gazed up at the legendary king, who spent much of his long reign on a war footing, trying to reconquer his native Sweden. He was, on rare occasions, good to the Jews, introducing legislation that made it possible for them to do business, to work the land. It's unlikely that the Chamys family was familiar with seventeenth-century Polish history, but something about the noble figure of this handsome, wild-eyed king seemed to inspire reverence, even nearly two and a half centuries after his death. Congregating at the statue had become something of a tradition for the Chamys family on these fruitless trips to Warsaw. Perhaps they considered this rendezvous beneath the king a pilgrimage to hope: Things would be different on the next trip to the city; bad luck could not last a lifetime.

Sophia and her family had walked the twenty-five miles from their shtetl to Warsaw, where her father had been promised work. But as was so often the case in the unhappy history of the Chamys family, the job never materialized. Standing with their oily cloth bundles under Sigismund III, the family was preparing for the long walk home when the elegant stranger loomed over them.

Isaac Boorosky approached the bedraggled family, introducing himself to Sophia's father as a successful businessman and a Jew. He told them he was looking for a maid to work in his widowed mother's kitchen in Lodz, which was just a six-hour journey over dirt roads from Warsaw. He nodded toward Sophia. How old is she?

Isaac didn't waste any time. After years of training, he knew how to spot a lucrative prospect. He knew to look beyond the ragged, loose garments and the filthy clogs worn by the peasant girls. He quickly saw Sophia's attributes -- the milky skin, the outline of budding breasts, the full red lips, the wisps of raven hair peeking out of the dark kerchief. What luck to discover such a specimen in the center of Warsaw! How fortunate that his expensive new shoes and trousers would be spared the shtetl mud. "Eight rubles," said Isaac, barely containing his excitement and removing the money from his pocket. The amount was an advance on Sophia's first six months of service, and Isaac pressed the coins into her father's rough, sunburned hands.

Continues...


Excerpted from Bodies and Souls by Isabel Vincent Copyright © 2005 by Isabel Vincent. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Bodies and Souls sheds light on one of the most shameful and secret chapters in history—the forced slavery and prostitution of thousands of young Jewish women from the 1860s to the beginning of World War II by a notorious gang of South American Jewish mobsters, the Zwi Migdal. Though these women were forced into this life, they were deemed unclean and shunned by the rest of the Jewish community, barred from partaking in the sacred Jewish burial ritual. Eventually, the women overcame this ban by banding together and forming The Society of Truth, a religious order that practiced love, honor to God, and faith in one another.

Questions for Discussion

1. Bodies and Souls begins with a tour of a rundown cemetery in Inhaúma, Brazil. How does this set the tone for the rest of the book? What information do we learn from the author's visit to the cemetery? What is Daniel Rodrigues's relationship to the cemetery?

2. Who is Isaac Boorosky? When he visited the shtetls, what did the peasants think of him? Though penniless and desperate, Sophia Chamys's father initially resists Boorosky's offer to give his daughter employment as a maid. Why didn't he jump at the chance to improve his daughter's circumstances? Why does her father eventually give in to Boorosky's offer?

3. Describe Sophia Chamys's initial impressions of Isaac Boorosky. When did her opinion of him change? What caused it to change?

4. "In life, they endured humiliation, abuse, and marginalization. But death was different." How do we know that a Jewish burial was the most important facet of the pimps and prostitutes' Jewish faith? Whywas a Jewish burial so important to them?

5. Compare Sophia Chamys, Rebecca Freedman, and Rachel Liberman's experiences in the brothels and what they ultimately did with their lives. How were they alike and how were they different?

6. The Zwi Migdal, Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society, and other Jewish criminal associations were successful because they were "all based on order, discipline, and honesty." How do you think the members of these organizations reconciled the terrible trade from which they made their money and their religious beliefs? How were community leaders—Jewish or otherwise—able to justify their dealings with these criminal organizations?

7. Why was the "respectable" Jewish community hesitant to take action against the Jewish gangsters?

8. How did language and religion contribute to the power that the pimps had over the Jewish prostitutes?

9. When the girls learned the truth about what their life was going to be in America, why didn't they write home to their families to let them and the rest of their community know that these well-dressed men—with their promises of a comfortable life—were lying about the kind of life they offered the girls in America? If they had managed to write home, would it have been enough to have stopped the Zwi Migdal?

10. The pimps and prostitutes in Argentina and Brazil were considered the "Jews of the Jews." What does the author mean by this statement?

11. What were Julio Alsogaray, Rachel Liberman, and fascism's role in bringing about the downfall of the Zwi Migdal? Whose role was the most important?

12. Do the atrocities that the girls and women from the shtetls suffered make you want to take action against the global trafficking in women that still occurs today? What are some of the ways in which you can make a difference? Or do you think that your efforts would be as ineffective as Bertha Pappenheim's—that there is very little you can do to change the way the world works?

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