By – September 9, 2019

Even those who con­sid­er them­selves well-versed in Jew­ish his­to­ry will feel sur­prised — even hor­ri­fied — by the sto­ry told in Talia Carner’s new nov­el, The Third Daugh­ter. Set in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, it tells of a Jew­ish-run syn­di­cate who sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly kid­napped young women from East­ern Europe for the pur­pose of sell­ing them as pros­ti­tutes in Buenos Aires.

Care­ful­ly researched and metic­u­lous­ly nov­el­ized, Carn­er tells the sto­ry of Batya, the third of many daugh­ters of a strug­gling Russ­ian milk­man. Batya’s two old­er sis­ters have already gone astray — one mar­ried a rev­o­lu­tion­ary and the oth­er, a gen­tile. Exis­tence is uncer­tain, and pogroms reg­u­lar­ly dec­i­mate entire shtetls. Echoes of Fid­dler on the Roof” are unavoid­able, but the par­al­lels stop when Batya, at four­teen, catch­es the eye of what seems to be a rich, eli­gi­ble man from Amer­i­ca.” Smooth and redo­lent with cologne, he promis­es Batya’s father that he will mar­ry her when she is six­teen — mean­while keep­ing her safe with his sis­ter. The patri­arch imag­ines a gild­ed world in which his daugh­ter will ride in car­riages and dine on fine chi­na. Lit­tle does he know that there are will be no mar­riages or car­riages. Instead, young Batya (and thou­sands like her) will be raped with­in days of kiss­ing her mameh and tateh good­bye, and that her suitor’s sis­ter” runs an Argen­tin­ian whore­house in which Batya will be enslaved.

Carn­er, the author of Jerusalem Maid­en, is adept at illu­mi­nat­ing the injus­tices that women, espe­cial­ly Jew­ish women, are sub­ject­ed to. Those in this nov­el are raped, caged, and parad­ed naked in front of buy­ers. Used until they are no longer use­ful, they are then aban­doned to the streets. Reli­gious men in caf­tans are often respon­si­ble (indeed, caf­tan” — the gabar­dine coat of Chas­sidim — became a syn­onym for pimp”). Clients, too, are often Jew­ish, many of them young Ortho­dox men, for­bid­den from hav­ing sex before marriage.

This busi­ness mod­el must have seemed like a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty. It solved many prob­lems —instead of liv­ing as vul­ner­a­ble Jews in the Old World, these entre­pre­neurs thrived in a new world with a ten-to-one male to female ratio. Instead of scroung­ing for bread, they were blessed with a lim­it­less sup­ply of assets. And though looked down upon, these sharpies gained sta­tus by fund­ing and fre­quent­ing the­aters and opera hous­es, often attend­ing with a par­tic­u­lar­ly nice-look­ing lady” at their side.

Carn­er often notes that though these whore­mon­gers were leav­ing a patho­log­i­cal­ly anti­se­mit­ic world behind, they were them­selves respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing new anti­semitism in the Amer­i­c­as. Russ­ian and Pol­ish Jews became linked to immoral­i­ty — and just as the word caf­tan” meant pimp, the com­mon term for pros­ti­tute” was pola­ca, or Pol­ish girl.

The sto­ry would be grim but for the pow­er­ful Jew­ish reac­tion to this shame­ful era in his­to­ry. Phil­an­thropic plans are made to buy ranch­es that will house and employ new Jew­ish émi­grés en masse. Batya her­self fights at the fore­front of shut­ting down the bor­del­los of Buenos Aires, and of lead­ing her sis­ters” to free­dom. Indeed, the vivid inner life of Carner’s pro­tag­o­nist is one of the best aspects of the book. Brave, resource­ful, loy­al and fierce, Batya is a Jew­ish hero­ine who shines bright­ly in this dark sto­ry. Like a Shab­bat can­dle, she casts both light and heal­ing over a trou­bled era.

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Talia Carner

  1. In her hours of despair, Batya thinks about — and attempts — sui­cide. What pre­vents or pulls her back? At what points do you think she would say the life she is liv­ing is worth the trau­ma she has suf­fered? At what points would she not?

  2. Some sis­ters” at the broth­el enjoy what this way of life gives them. They pre­fer it to the alter­na­tive life of labor in a sweat­shop or a field – or liv­ing in the squalor of the shtetl. Dis­cuss the options open to women at the time – and today.

  3. On flight from a pogrom, the four­teen-year-old Batya feels respon­si­ble for her par­ents’ well being. Dis­cuss her life’s deci­sions in light of her old­er sis­ters’ choic­es. Is her love for her par­ents a bur­den or a gift?

  4. Dis­cuss the role faith plays in the book for each group of peo­ple: Batya and her sis­ters,” Batya’s fam­i­ly in Rus­sia, the pimps and patrons of Zwi Migdal, the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of Buenos Aires. To what prac­tices does each group adhere? What are lim­i­ta­tions and/​or hypocrisies of each group?

  5. Batya’s moth­er is con­stant­ly in Batya’s mind. How does Batya’s per­cep­tion of her moth­er change as she grows old­er? How does it change after her mother’s death? How did her mother’s pres­ence influ­ence Batya’s decisions?

  6. Both Net­tie and Rochel, two of Batya’s clos­est friends, go through dra­mat­ic trans­for­ma­tions — in very dif­fer­ent ways. Dis­cuss each one’s back­ground, char­ac­ter, and options. Why did each make the choic­es she made?

  7. Batya tried to save mon­ey to bring her fam­i­ly from Rus­sia. Dis­cuss the eco­nom­ic struc­ture of the broth­el — the finan­cial incen­tives offered to Batya and the ways in which those incen­tives ulti­mate­ly kept her in bondage.

  8. Towards the end of the book, Batya finds her­self choos­ing between Ulmann and Ser­gio. What are the risks and rewards of each? Whom did you think Batya should choose? Did you find your­self chang­ing your mind at dif­fer­ent points in the story?

  9. How com­plic­it was the Argen­tine gov­ern­ment in the traf­fick­ing of women? How did Zwi Migdal exploit cul­tur­al and legal prac­tices to grow their busi­ness? And how was it able to hold onto pow­er, even against a ris­ing backlash?

  10. The meth­ods and prac­tices used by Moskowitz and oth­er pimps in the book are still being used today. How and why are they so effective?


This book shines a light on a lit­tle known and dark chap­ter of Jew­ish his­to­ry. A young, vul­ner­a­ble woman’s fam­i­ly enters into what was to be an advan­ta­geous match for an impov­er­ished young girl whose fam­i­ly is flee­ing a pogrom. Trag­i­cal­ly, they have unknow­ing­ly sold their old­est daugh­ter, Batya, into pros­ti­tu­tion. Batya’s life and thou­sands of oth­er young women have been scammed into a shame­ful life of pros­ti­tu­tion in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

So many inno­cent vic­tims were human traf­ficked by oth­er Jews. This was per­pe­trat­ed by promi­nent Jew­ish men pray­ing on unsus­pect­ing fam­i­lies, des­per­ate for a bet­ter life for their daugh­ters. Batya becomes Esper­an­za, but nev­er los­es her Jew­ish heart. She is repeat­ed­ly chal­lenged and degrad­ed, yet sur­vives. All the women who were vic­tim­ized were nev­er giv­en pity or love of the Argen­tine Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty. The gang of thugs and their female vic­tims were shunned. This made life even more dif­fi­cult for God-fear­ing, good, young women. Many did not have the health or sta­mi­na to survive.

Her grit and intel­li­gence help her forge the path to free­dom. Batya does meet some tru­ly good men who aid her pur­suit to reunite with her frac­tured fam­i­ly. The jour­ney is fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties and we learn of good­ness and risks. This sto­ry is of a very unpleas­ant chap­ter in Jew­ish his­to­ry with endear­ing and mem­o­rable characters.