January 19, 2006
Where Streets Were Paved With Sorrow
"Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas" by Isabel Vincent (William Morrow, $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."
Although 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.
This article was reprinted courtesy of The Forward.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Mass.