Incredible as it may seem, in late 19th century Brazil, there were 20,000 Jewish women working as prostitutes in the cities of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero.
How did Jewish girls find themselves the practitioners of the world’s oldest profession? This sordid slice of history is documented by Isabel Vincent in Bodies and Souls. Although hampered by the reluctance of those familiar with the details of this era to openly share their knowledge, the author has managed to offer an insightful and at times heart-wrenching portrayal of the lives of the polacas (Jewish women from the shtetls of Eastern Europe who worked as prostitutes in the brothels of South America).
Procuring women for the brothels was the responsibility of Jewish pimps. They preyed upon the young, illiterate Jewish women living in the downtrodden shtetls of Poland and Russia, where the poverty and desperation of the families of the young women made them eager to accept offers of a better life for their young daughters. Promises of riches, travel, and sufficient food lured these young women into believing that they were going to be working as aides or assistants to elderly women in “America.” Some of the pimps even “married” the young women in sham ceremonies intended to placate the parents who might have reservations about sending their daughters into unknown places.
The young girls soon realized that they had been duped. Instead of a life marked by fine garments and fine food, the women had been lured into a profession that would forever mark them as impure and subject to ostracism by the mainstream Jewish community. Most often, the news that they were about to enter a life of prostitution was broken to the women on the boat to Latin America. Some of the women, when confronted with the news, committed suicide, while others adapted in order to survive. With varying degrees of success, some tried to escape from the brothels, although the consequences of being caught by their pimps were dismal.
Vincent focuses on one of the most unlikely outcomes to arise out of the community of polacos. Faced with the reality of being considered pariahs by other Jews, these resourceful women established their own community organization called Chesed Shel Emess. This benevolent association purchased a plot of land to establish a cemetery for the polacos (who were not allowed to be buried in the mainstream Jewish cemetery). They established their own synagogue and pooled resources to provide financial help to raise the children of the polacos.
Vincent has succeeded in portraying the heart-wrenching predicament of these young women, at the same time capturing their resilience and commitment to each another.