When browsing through maps of South American cities, we can come across necropolises described as ‘Cementerio de los Polacos (Hebreos)’ or similar. We find them in large metropolises, such as Bogotá in Colombia, as well as in smaller centres: Avellaneda and Granadero Baigorria in Argentina, Inhauma and Cubatão in Brazil. They could be regarded as further, very distant monuments to the emigration of Polish Jews to various corners of the world, but many of them carry the memory of a more gloomy chapter in history – the overseas trade in young Jewish women, who, after arriving, either voluntarily or as a result of coercion, made their living of prostitution. Some of them died quickly from disease or suicide. The comrades tried to ensure at least their dignified, ritual burial – at the ‘Cementerios de los Polacos’.
Origin of the problem of prostitution and trafficking in women
The issue of forced prostitution and trafficking in women was one of the most common themes in the press of the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century. Respectable magazines and the daily tabloid press reported on the kidnapping of women from the streets of Polish cities, the seduction of lone workers, the careerism of the poor, the bargaining between human traffickers and the unwitting or desperate parents of young girls. They warned against large-scale shenanigans, against false offers of attractive work, especially abroad. Women were advised against travelling alone and accepting offers of help from strangers. All women, regardless of their background, were threatened. In the book from 1927, entitled “Nierząd, handel „żywym towarem”, pornografia ze stanowiska historji, etyki, higjeny i prawa” (English: Prostitution. Fornication, human trafficking, pornography from a historical, ethical, hygienic and legal perspective) it was written that:
“The export of Jewish girls from among the poorer small-town population almost matched the export of Christian girls. Young Jewish girls fell by the hundreds into the hands of traffickers, and in the larger cities a special profession of Jewish pimps developed, who hunted for Jewish girls seeking service in wealthier Jewish homes or occupation in workshops and factories"[1.1].
Women in the Polish lands in the 19th and 20th centuries had little chance of finding stable employment to support themselves and their families, which was an acute problem for Jewish families with a statistically large number of members. The low salaries that working women received were also often not enough to cover their basic expenses. For Jewish women speaking mainly Yiddish from childhood, the language barrier was an additional obstacle in the labour market. It was also more difficult for those who, for religious reasons refused to work on Saturdays. Faced with job losses or starvation wages, prostitution was often the only choice for survival.
Reports of women being abducted en masse and forced into prostitution made a colossal impression on conservative society. Although the sight of prostitutes strolling the streets of Polish cities was not surprising at the time, the publicised cases of human trafficking aroused fear and disbelief. The article "Pricing for women", published on 27 August 1935 in the Polish-language Jewish daily newspaper "5-ta Rano”, reads: “A few days ago, the League of Nations published a book discussing this problem [of trafficking in women] most comprehensively (...). It describes things that are not within the bounds of sound reason. When you look through its pages, everything we have heard and imagined so far pales before reality”. The public discourse highlighted the vulnerability of the girls who had been tricked and kidnapped, their lack of hope for rescue, their disgrace and objectification: “There are exchanges organised on regular basis. "The prices of goods” fluctuate (...) – depending on the 'stocks' in stock, on the species of goods (height, appearance, age) and finally on the general economic situation"[1.2].
The human trafficking embodied the worst ideas of a changing world: the cult of carnality, widespread demoralisation, anonymity, the defiling of the ideal of the woman – innocent, modest, devoted to her family. The fact that women from Polish lands ended up in foreign brothels reinforced racist beliefs and increased fear of what was foreign, unknown and distant. The prospect of joining the ranks of ‘white slave women’ was paralysing not only for the girls at risk, but also for the men – fathers, brothers and husbands, raised to be protectors of ‘their women’.
Faced with the perceived problem of prostitution and the growing number of registered and illegal brothels, social activists, doctors and members of the intelligentsia began to form organisations to monitor and combat the sex industry. Regardless of the ethnic and religious profile of these associations, the scope and results of their activities were similar. Organisations such as the Warsaw Jewish Society for the Protection of Women (Polish: Warszawskie Żydowskie Towarzystwo Ochrony Kobiet) and the Jewish Society for the Prevention of Trafficking in Girls (Polish: Towarzystwo Żydowskie dla Zapobiegania Handlowi Dziewczętami), set up to prevent trafficking in women and to care for prostitutes who wanted to leave their profession, were not very successful. Contemporary researchers mention questionable practices: the lack of a definition of ‘live cargo trafficking’ and the associated abuses – calling any prostitution ‘white slavery’, inflating reported statistics, concealing cases of voluntary prostitution, failing to tailor forms of support to the needs of former prostitutes.
The problems described were undoubtedly a heavy burden for the Jewish communities, and one of their sad testimonies were the remote graves of las polacas. However, one cannot fail to notice that the phenomenon of human trafficking at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was mythologised in a specific way by the intense social transformations taking place at that time. The issue of women trafficking, which has inflamed public opinion, reflected society's anxieties about increasing industrialisation, urbanisation, the migration of men and women seeking work outside their country, and finally, the change in the traditional family model and the emancipation of women.
Jews anxiously followed reports of exploitation of women, prostitution and changing mores. Articles describing the arrests and trials of Jewish women traffickers from Wadowice, Warsaw, Lviv, Chernivtsi and Łódź caused a great stir. Rabbis and Jewish intellectuals debated the moral condition of the community, observing with great concern the emerging anti-Semitic dimension of the discourse on the ‘live cargo trafficking’ and the prostitution industry.
There were many reasons for concern. In 1847, in the Izraelita newspaper, statistics were published estimating that as many as 2/3 of the prostitutes in Warsaw brothels were Jewish. The public also reported on the large number of Jewish female sex workers in Argentina, Brazil, the Ottoman Empire and even Japan. At the beginning of the 20th century, estimates were cited in the Jewish press indicating the high percentage of Jews among “human traffickers” and the dominance of Eastern European Jewish women in Brazilian and Argentinian brothels (90%). The Polish anti-Semitic press described the demoralisation of Jews and Jewish women and spoke of their destructive influence on society as a whole. Both the assimilated Jews and those who valued their own social and cultural distinctiveness feared that the publicised trials and statistics would lead to an intensification of anti-Semitic sentiments and the creation of a pogrom atmosphere, similar to the events triggered by alleged kidnappings of Christian children and ritual murders.
In the 1890s, the Jewish prostitution underworld solidified, producing specific organisational forms, referring to traditional Jewish self-aid societies (that is how ‘Warsaw Mutual Aid Society’ (Polish: Warszawskie Towarzystwo Wzajemnej Pomocy) started). This exacerbated tensions within the Jewish community.
Riots – by no means of anti-Semitic nature – occurred in 1905. Following reports that a Jewish worker had been abducted and forced to work as a prostitute, events later dubbed the “pimp pogrom” took place between 24 and 26 May. A group of workers, mostly Jewish, demolished brothels, private dwellings, restaurants and cafés where pimps, procurers, prostitutes and ‘live cargo traffickers’ met. Armed with clubs, knives and sticks, the militiamen took to the streets and beat up the prostitutes, procurers and pimps they encountered, the owners and landlords of brothels. The incited crowd was joined by Polish workers, students and women. Linen, mirrors, expensive furniture, clothes and valuables were thrown from the premises onto the streets. In several places there were fights and shootings between the crowd and the defending representatives of the demimonde. Around 150 Warsaw brothels were demolished over several days; several people were killed in lynches. The events of May 1905 were favourably received by most Varsovians. According to many, this was the only way to “cleanse the city”: to end prostitution and demoralisation, to deter and take revenge on all those caught up in the human trafficking. From the perspective of the Jewish proletariat, it was also a demonstration of disagreement with the identification of all Jews with pimping and trafficking in women.
‘The pimp pogrom’ did not, however, cause the identification of Jews with the prostitution industry and the trafficking of women to cease. The case of Zwi Migdal, an organisation founded in Buenos Aires and specialising in trafficking women from Eastern Europe to brothels in South America, has reverberated. Pretending to be a self-aid group of emigrants coming from Polish lands, the organisation of Jewish pimps and emigration agents was officially established in 1906 as the Varsovia Warsaw Mutual Aid Society (Polish: Warszawskie Towarzystwo Wzajemnej Pomocy Varsovia). In fact, its large-scale activities began at the end of the 19th century; the organisation was highly influential in publicising the problem of human trafficking, especially in the context of Jewish involvement in this practice. In 1927, as a result of the intervention of Władysław Mazurkiewicz, Polish representative in Argentina, its name was changed to Zwi Migdal Mutual Aid Society (Polish: Towarzystwo Wzajemnej Pomocy Cwi Migdal) – after its founder, Louis (Zwi) Migdal.
During nearly thirty years, a network of contacts has been created around Zwi Migdal to support each other in criminal activities. Between the wars, the press reported that thousands of teenage girls and young women lured by visions of marriage to a rich Jewish immigrant or well-paid work abroad, ended up in Argentine brothels. As contemporary researchers explain, it is impossible to estimate how many women illegally transported abroad were placed in brothels against their will, as a result of fraud or coercion, and in how many cases it was the result of an autonomous decision. However, there is no doubt that members of the organisation harmed thousands of women and their actions caused widespread fear.
Eventually, activities of Zwi Migdal in Argentina were suppressed in the 1930s, after the conservative military coup of General Uriburu in 1930. The testimony of Raquel Liberman, a Jewish woman from Berdyczów, who was herself a victim of matrimonial fraud and violence on the part of Zwi Migdal members, contributed to the dismantling of the criminal organisation. On the wall of the separated sector of the Jewish cemetery in Avellaneda, sometimes referred to as the ‘cemetery of Zwi Migdal’, there is a plaque dedicated to Liberman’s memory. In the separated (according to Judaism, unclear) sector of the cemetery are buried both women who fell victim to Zwi Migdal and women and men who were active in the organization.
On the wave of publicised cases of trafficking in women from Eastern Europe and the statistics indicating the high number of prostitutes recruited from among Polish Jewish women, the term polaca (Polish woman) became a byword for prostitute, especially from this part of Europe, in South America. Las polacas living in Brazil founded their own association, the Israeli Benevolent Funeral and Religious Association, built their own synagogue and led to the creation of a small cemetery in Inhaúma where they could bury their dead comrades in respect for their own religion. Cemeteries where las polacas are buried are also found in other places, in Cubatão in Brazil or Avellaneda and Granadero Baigorria in Argentina. The Jewish women from Polish lands who ended up in brothels in South America can be divided into two groups – one were women who independently, consciously and voluntarily decided to do sex work, and the other were those who were forced into it – through fraud, blackmail, manipulation.
In some cases, the road to prostitution against one's will began as far back as the Polish lands – this was the case with women seduced by visions of attractive work or marriage. Sometimes, the journey was the turning point. During the preparation phase, on a shipboard and upon arrival at their destination, the women were exposed to the actions of dishonest middlemen, procurers and pimps who offered them unfavourable contracts and forced them to pay debts for their assistance. Women, who were intimidated and did not speak the language could not leave their jobs or ask the police to intervene, and being thousands of kilometres from home, they often could not count on help from relatives.
An important factor affecting the situation of Jewish women forced to prostitution against their will was the restrictions imposed by their religion. Women who were victims of matrimonial swindlers were not always ready to oppose their ‘husband’, as this excluded a traditional, patriarchal upbringing in the cult of obedience to the will of the spouse (this is reflected, to begin with, in the language – in Hebrew a husband is baal ha-isha, literally: a master, owner of a woman). An insurmountable barrier for many victims of matrimonial fraud was the vision of becoming an agunah (Hebrew, literally: a bound one), i.e. a woman without permission to divorce and remarry.
Experiences of sex work were also sometimes experienced by migrant women wishing to join their loved ones abroad and unable to find themselves after arrival. The language barrier, the lack of prospects and the feeling of helplessness in a foreign country led women to spontaneously decide for prostitution, which was unwanted and bought with a sense of guilt and harm.
Not all women working in the “famous” Argentine and Brazilian brothels ended up there against their will. Although most women treated prostitution as a casual, temporary occupation, in the Polish lands every sex worker was forced to register with the police. The rationing of prostitution and the associated medical and police control introduced in the nineteenth century in all partitioned territories were primarily intended to suppress the growing incidence of venereal diseases, but in practice they contributed to the stigmatisation of female sex workers. The documents issued through the registration process replaced the passports taken away from women involved in prostitution, making it harder for them to keep their livelihoods secret. Undoubtedly, emigration was a way for many of them to escape social stigmatisation.
Although this attitude was incomprehensible to many, some prostitutes did not consider themselves victims. They expressed this on the occasion of the notorious ‘pimp pogrom’ of 1905 and the trials held against pimps. In particular, those women, who saw the positive sides of sex work may have regarded going to a foreign brothel as an opportunity rather than a threat – not least because emigration was associated with better pay. There are known cases of women who, after only a few years of sex work abroad, have left the profession and invested the money they saved in their own businesses. Not all stories of voluntary prostitutes had equally happy endings. Whatever was their attitudes towards sex work, cases of financial exploitation, extortion, blackmail and violence remained a problem.
Jews and trafficking in women in the light of contemporary research
The topics of prostitution, trafficking in women and related stereotypes of an anti-Semitic nature have been the subject of research by historians, anthropologists and literary scholars in recent years. Aleksandra Jakubczak saw a gap between the scale of the problem as perceived by the public and its sparse representation in surviving court records, police investigations and materials of organisations monitoring and combating trafficking in women. When interpreting the contemporary discourse, as well as verifying the scale of the phenomenon and the real activities of the organisations, Jakubczak and other researchers deconstruct the myth of ‘human trafficking’ and prove that in reality trafficking in women was a marginal phenomenon and not, as used to be presented, a widespread one.
According to research carried out by historians, figures also quoted by Jewish commentators inflated the number of prostitutes of Jewish origin. Their participation in the prostitution industry in Polish lands was, in most cases, proportional to that of the Jewish community in Polish cities [[refr: E. Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice. The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery, 1870-1939, New York 1983]]. In Warsaw, where excessive representation of the ewomen of Jewish origin employed in brothels was reported, Jews constituted approx. 33% of the population – and the percentage of Jewish prostitutes fluctuated between 17% (1872) and 23% (1890)[1.3].
Reports and rumours of Jewish girls being exported from Eastern Europe by “notorious” pimps were publicised internationally, making the representatives of the Jewish underworld operating in various countries much more attentive. This is how researchers explain the failure to notice or ignore the confirmed dominance of French prostitutes in Argentina, brought there by their compatriots [1.4].
According to researchers, the statistics given by local abolitionist organisations indicating the high percentage of Jewish sex workers from Polish lands were, on the one hand, intended to lead to a total ban on prostitution and, on the other hand, to limit the emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. As Aleksandra Jakubczak points out, if between 1899 and 1915 in Buenos Aires only one third (less than 5,000) of the registered prostitutes were women from Russia and Austria-Hungary, it is impossible that 10,000 women a year were transported there from Polish lands alone, as the Polish press reported [1.5].
Although undoubtedly some las polacas ended up in brothels as a result of fraud, manipulation or the lack of alternative ways to earn money in a foreign country, the fact that there was a group of people voluntarily choosing prostitution abroad meant that the risky procedure of deceiving and abducting women in order to force them into sex work was probably rarer than the public used to portray it.
Also unsupported by reliable sources is the allegation of a large representation of procurers of Jewish origin, echoed by the press and by organisations fighting against this practice. According to historians, this was a myth that grew out of the belief that Jews were dominant in all structures associated with the trafficking of women and, more broadly, a series of anti-Semitic accusations equating Jews with conspiracies, demoralisation and moral corruption.
The question of the high proportion of people of Jewish origin among brothel owners is different in the light of the available sources. In the Russian partition as many as 75% of the registered (legal) brothels were run by Jews [1.6]. In Warsaw, this number was probably even higher. However, it is important to answer the question about the reasons for this over-representation. It results, as historians point out, from the economic position of the Jewish community. Since Jews were not allowed to enter many professions, they sought a place for themselves in other, often unpopular trades – such as pimping or, earlier, innkeeping and usury. They were also trying their luck with new, uncertain professions – such as at that time cinematography. Having the necessary know-how already at their disposal, they then transferred this experience abroad with the waves of emigration. The fact that Jews became the owners of many brothels on both sides of the ocean undoubtedly became a factor in the development of the exportation of women to foreign brothels.
The focus of public opinion on the activities of ‘live cargo traffickers’ largely deprived women of agency and distorted reality. The more sensational the reports about procurers and pimps became, the less attention was paid to the problems of women choosing prostitution – precarious employment, starvation wages, lack of prospects for an improvement in their material situation. Poignant tales of women being abducted from the streets and of poor, ignorant provincial girls deceived by procurers and pimps sustained the belief that women's sexuality and independence should be controlled and restricted. An analysis of the discourse at the turn of the 20th century also reveals a paradox: on the one hand, women were portrayed as innocent, defenceless victims; on the other, voices demonising and stigmatising prostitutes were widespread. They were written about in the context of bodily, moral and spiritual decay, filth and disease. The polarisation of discourse excluded the nuance, the multiplicity of reasons, needs and decisions behind prostitution. In the light of recent research, the publicity given to trafficking in women appears primarily as a moral panic – an exaggerated social concern reflecting fear for the survival of the old social order.
- Guy D., Argentina: Jewish White Slavery [on-line] https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/argentina-jewish-white-slavery [accessed: 28 April 2021].
- Jakubczak A., Polacy, Żydzi i mit handlu kobietami, Warszawa 2020.
- Sikorska-Kulesza, J., Handel kobietami z ziem polskich na przełomie XIX i XX wieku – historyk między głosem prasy a milczeniem sądu, [w:] O kobietach. Studia i szkice. Wiek XIX i XX, ed. J. Hoff, Rzeszów 2011, pp. 120-137.
- Sikorska-Kulesza, J., Zło tolerowane. Prostytucja w Królestwie Polskim w XIX wieku, Warszawa 2004.
- [1.1] As cited in: A Jakubczak, Polacy, Żydzi i mit handlu kobietami, Warszawa 2020, p. 67.
- [1.2] Cennik na kobiety, "5-ta rano: bezpartyjny dziennik żydowski”, R. 5, no. 242 (27 August 1935), p. 4.
- [1.3] Cf. N. Las, Znut we-sachar be-naszim ba-chewra ha-jehudit bi-tchilat ha-mea ha-esrim, "Kiwunim chadashim" 2001, no. 5, p. 217, [as cited in:] A. Jakubczak, Polacy, Żydzi i mit handlu kobietami, Warszawa 2020, p. 110]. Similarly, data on prostitution of Eastern European women abroad was overstated. The statistics verified by researchers show 22% participation of Jewish women from Polish lands in the sex industry in Argentina, not 90% as reported by the media and followed by stereotypes functioning in public opinion [[refr:| Cf. E. Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice. The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery, 1870-1939, New York 1983
- [1.4] Cf: D. J. Guy, Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires: Prostitution, Family and Nation in Argentina, Lincoln-London 1990
- [1.5] A. Jakubczak, Polacy, Żydzi i mit handlu kobietami, Warszawa 2020, pp. 61-62
- [1.6] Cf. R. Blobaum (ed.), Antisemitism and Its Oponents in Modern Poland, Ithaca 2005.