2nd Prize — Jewish Renaissance

When arriving at international airports, you’ll see posters about ‘modern slavery’. Jews know all about slavery – every Passover we tell the story of how we were slaves. For most, that’s where the story ends. But not for all Jews.

The Bible (Genesis 24) tells how Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. Laden with riches, the servant meets Abraham’s nephew and asks for Rebekah to accompany him to Canaan to marry Isaac. Rebekah is happy to go and her family receives gifts in return. The pair marries and the story ends happily.

Jews from Eastern European shtetls will know this story well, so when an immaculately dressed man turns up saying he represents a rich Jew in Argentina who wants a good-looking Jewish girl to marry, they believe him. Especially when the man offers gifts for one of the family’s daughters. The daughter, in turn, recognises her chance to escape the squalor of the village and within a few days she is married in what became known as a ‘stille chuppah’ (‘silent canopy’, where no record of the marriage is made).

The fairy tale would soon come to an end when, arriving in Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Rio or the like, the daughter would be stripped naked and sold to the highest bidder to work in a local brothel. The man who coerced her was a member of Zwi Migdal, a criminal organisation that trafficked Jewish women from Central Europe.

The trafficking of girls such as this was not secret. In 1910, at the Jewish International Conference on the Suppression of the Traffic in Girls and Women, the Austrian social pioneer and Jewish Women’s Association founder, Bertha Pappenheim wrote: “Undoubtedly economic need is a great factor in the question.” And the conference reminded attendees of an 1898 letter from Chief Rabbi Adler and Western European colleagues to Eastern European rabbis: “The sad tidings have come to us that evil men and women go about in your countries, from town to town and village to village, and induce young maidens by false representations to leave their native land and to go to distant countries, telling them that they will find there good and remunerative situations in business houses.”

Zwi Migdal, originally called the Varsovia (Warsaw) Jewish Mutual Aid Society, changed its name in 1927 after the Polish envoy in Argentina filed an official complaint regarding the use of ‘Warsaw’ in its name. The new name was chosen to honour one of its founders, Luis Zwi Migdal. The organisation operated from around 1860 to the1930s. Its annual turnover was reported as $50 million in the early 1900s. Its centre was in Buenos Aires, with branches in Brazil, New York and Warsaw. By the 1920s, over 400 pimps controlled around 2,000 brothels and 30,000 women in Argentina alone, with larger brothels housing up to 80 sex slaves. Members of the organisation were bound by rules based on “order, discipline and honesty” and were meticulous in logging all transactions. Girls who failed to comply or satisfy clients were beaten, and pimps gained immunity by bribing officials.

The rest of the Argentinian community tried to ostracise the pimps and women – but money won out. The wealthier Zwi Migdal members became patrons of Jewish theatres and donated money for the construction of synagogues and community buildings. Eventually, they were banned from synagogues and even refused burial in local cemeteries – becoming known as ‘tmeyim’ (unclean). To deal with this, the pimps established their own synagogues and cemeteries, and some kept Shabbat, the festivals and kashrut (dietary laws). In Sao Paolo they even built a mikvah.

Zwi Migdal flourished until 1930, when it was ended through the bravery of Raquel Liberman.  Born in Berdichev in 1900, Liberman was a victim of sexual exploitation. In 1919 she married a Warsaw tailor called Yaacov Ferber and, in 1921, while she was pregnant with her second child, Ferber emigrated to Argentina – joining his sister and her husband near Buenos Aires. Liberman, with her two sons, joined him a year later, but Ferber, suffering from tuberculosis, died soon after. Aged 23, Raquel moved to the capital to earn money to support herself and her children, whom she left with trusted neighbours. She tried to get work as a seamstress, but ended up being drawn into prostitution. On 31 December 1929, Liberman sought help from Ezrat Nashim – the Society for the Protection of Girls & Women. She submitted a denunciation to a chief police inspector and, in 1930, the Zwi Migdal HQ was raided, brothels were closed, with many pimps and madams deported, and the organisation dismantled. Prostitution was banned in 1936 in Argentina, partly as a result of Liberman giving the names of traffickers and madams. 

Only a small number of Zwi Migdal members were convicted. By 1960, the Jewish prostitutes of Latin America had all but disappeared and most had died. The archives of Zwi Migdal were kept until the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Centre in Buenos Aires. The impact of Zwi Migdal is still seen today – the Brazilian Portuguese word for a pimp, cafetão, derives from the caftan worn by Eastern European Jews. Polaca (Polish woman) is a slang term for prostitute (and the title of a song about Liberman by Myrtha Schalom).

The tragedy is that Zwi Migdal may be history, but trafficking people into slavery continues, including in Israel. Walk Free, an international human rights group focused on eradicating modern slavery, says there were 3.8 slaves to every 1,000 people in Israel in 2021 – that’s 33,000 people involved in forced labour, marriage and prostitution. Although Israel is better at stamping out trafficking than many other countries, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report puts Israel at level two out of three tiers for not meeting minimum standards for eliminating the crime. In 2022, Israel established a national anti-trafficking advisory committee and the 2023 TIP report said the country was improving. Despite a change in government and potentially fewer legitimate foreign workers as a result of the 7 October atrocity, hopefully the elimination of trafficking will remain a priority in 2024 and beyond.

By Arthur Weiss

Header photo: Protest against slavery, New York c.1909 © George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

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