Curi­ous about Tevye’s less­er known daugh­ters, the four left out of the the­atri­cal adap­ta­tion of Fid­dler on the Roof, I picked up an old vol­ume of Sholem Aleichem’s The Rail­road Sto­ries. The rich, humor­ous lan­guage of this Yid­dish sto­ry­teller (in trans­la­tion), evoked the famil­iar warm feel­ing for Tevye who, while recount­ing his trou­bles, comes across also as a lay philosopher.

Then I stum­bled upon anoth­er short sto­ry in the col­lec­tion, The Man From Buenos Aires.” This time, the shady, sleek char­ac­ter who brags about his busi­ness suc­cess in Buenos Aires, but nev­er reveals the nature of his enter­prise, left me feel­ing queasy — just as the author had intended.

I under­stood what busi­ness brought this fel­low his rich­es. Sex trafficking.

By asso­ci­a­tion, my mind returned to a day in 1995, at the Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Con­fer­ence in Bei­jing, when an elder­ly Fil­ip­ina told the audi­ence about her past suf­fer­ing as a Com­fort Woman.” She had been one of many thou­sands of girls cap­tured by the Impe­r­i­al Japan­ese Army dur­ing WWII and forced to serve the sex­u­al needs of its army.

The tiny woman with bowed legs had an oper­at­ic voice. The inter­preter spoke her words through the head­phone, but what I heard was the Filipina’s cry in a lyri­cal, high-pitched voice that, with­out the aid of a micro­phone, rever­ber­at­ed in the hall as the woman recount­ed the indig­ni­ties, tor­ture, and injus­tices she had suf­fered. Her exquis­ite voice imprint­ed in my head the trag­ic sto­ry of all sub­ju­gat­ed women.

Her exquis­ite voice imprint­ed in my head the trag­ic sto­ry of all sub­ju­gat­ed women. 

Read­ing Shalom Aleichem’s sto­ry now reignit­ed those synaps­es in my brain. I had been faint­ly aware of a blot in the past of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to Argenti­na, some of whose mem­bers had engaged in pimp­ing and pros­ti­tu­tion. I recalled that in 2007, on my third trip to Buenos Aires, I had vis­it­ed the new Aso­ciación Mutu­al Israeli­ta Argenti­na (AMIA,) the impos­ing build­ing that housed all Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions, (after the pre­vi­ous one had been bombed in 1994, killing eighty-five peo­ple and injur­ing hun­dreds of oth­ers). I ambled into the library, where I chat­ted in Eng­lish with the librar­i­an. How­ev­er, when I asked her casu­al­ly about the Jew­ish pros­ti­tutes and pimps,” she sud­den­ly for­got her English.

Talia in 1996 in Buenos Aires, demand­ing the gov­ern­men­t’s inves­ti­ga­tion into the 1994 AMIA bombing.

Indeed, the idea of Jews involved in such activ­i­ties was so for­eign to our own per­cep­tion of peo­ple­hood that even Ben-Guri­on, Israel’s founder and its first Prime Min­is­ter, had once said, We will ful­fill our dream of being a nor­mal peo­ple when we have our own thieves and our own prostitutes.”

I put aside Shalom Aleichem’s thought-pro­vok­ing 1909 sto­ry and turned to mod­ern-day Google. With­in min­utes, I was print­ing out moun­tains of doc­u­ments about Zwi Migdal, the legal union of Jew­ish pimps head­quar­tered in Buenos Aires that had oper­at­ed with impuni­ty for sev­en­ty years. All I could think about was the girls and women caught in the nets of lies and false promis­es of mar­riages and jobs, lured from the shtetls to the gold­en America.”

It had always been clear to me why Fid­dler On The Roof avoid­ed show­ing on stage the tru­ly bru­tal hor­rors of the hun­dreds of pogroms: men’s beards torn off with the skin, preg­nant women’s bel­lies slashed open, children’s heads bashed against walls. The lure of Amer­i­ca, giv­en these ongo­ing vicious per­se­cu­tions in Europe, was clear.

I took my pile of print­outs to a beach in Boca Raton, FL, where I enjoyed a warm win­ter and a cool drink, but as I read the arti­cles, my skin prick­led with dread. Sud­den­ly, against the roar of the ocean rose the haunt­ing voice of the tiny Fil­ip­ina, cry­ing to be heard, to be remem­bered, not to be judged and stig­ma­tized by what had hap­pened to her. Upon return­ing to her vil­lage, she had been shunned. Sul­lied, she could nev­er mar­ry, which in her soci­ety was the only way for a woman to be fed and housed. Unlike many of her fel­low sex pris­on­ers, she did not com­mit sui­cide then, or lat­er. Instead, her spir­it car­ried her to old age while she con­tin­ued to seek an apol­o­gy from the Japan­ese gov­ern­ment, who stead­fast­ly refused to admit this war crime.

In my head, the woman’s cries became the wails of the Jew­ish women vic­tims I was now read­ing about. Once bro­ken by unimag­in­able tor­ture through­out the weeks-long ocean-cross­ing, they were forced into pros­ti­tu­tion. At its height, Zwi Migdal employed 30,000 Jew­ish women across South Amer­i­ca (even reach­ing New York’s Low­er East Side), net­ting $50,000,000 prof­it a year.

It wasn’t hard to imag­ine what I would have cho­sen had I lived in a shtetl dur­ing those awful times and a well-heeled stranger showed up with the promise of a won­der­ful life in Amer­i­ca. Wouldn’t the opti­mistic Tevye, too, send one of his daugh­ters had they met that con­niv­ing man from Buenos Aires?

Wouldn’t the opti­mistic Tevye, too, send one of his daugh­ters had they met that con­niv­ing man from Buenos Aires?

Her mis­for­tune would have dou­bled when she found her­self shunned by her own peo­ple. The upstand­ing Jews of Argenti­na, Brazil, and Uruguay turned their backs on the teenage Jew­ish vic­tims, and the benev­o­lent soci­eties, on which we Jews pride our­selves, shut their doors in the faces of the pros­ti­tutes and their chil­dren. The upstand­ing Jews refused to bury the sul­lied women in their ceme­ter­ies, as though the dead, too, could be con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by their impure lives.

Hav­ing lived at the edge of soci­ety, nev­er viewed as vic­tims, these girls and women were pur­pose­ly for­got­ten, as lat­er man­i­fest­ed by the silence of the librarian.

But that was not how I, with my twen­ty-first century’s sen­si­tiv­i­ties, viewed them. In find­ing the human spir­it beneath their paint­ed faces, inde­cent clothes and crude solic­i­ta­tions, I want­ed to hon­or their suf­fer­ing and swal­low the redemp­tive cure of truth-telling.

It took enor­mous courage to plunge into this com­plex tale. I had always avoid­ed writ­ing or com­ment­ing pub­licly about any­thing bad relat­ing to Jews; we have plen­ty of ene­mies to do that. It took fur­ther courage to take the emo­tion­al jour­ney into the dark world of the sex­u­al slav­ery of — accord­ing to my research — between 150,000 to 220,000 Jew­ish women vic­tims of Zwi Migdal. But Sholem Aleichem’s sto­ry, for­ev­er lumped togeth­er with Tevye’s sto­ries, gave me per­mis­sion, and the haunt­ing pitch of the Fil­ip­ina that turned into a Jew­ish keen­ing cho­rus com­pelled me to forge on. I crawled under the skin of Tevye’s daugh­ter in order to bring com­pas­sion where none had exist­ed before for these poor souls.

Talia with women of dif­fer­ent parts of the world tak­en at her UN pre­sen­ta­tion in March 2007 about infan­ti­cide in China.

In the years it took me to fever­ish­ly pen the nov­el, a greater mis­sion emerged: we, Jews, can­not change the past, but we can learn a les­son from it. By way of Tikkun Olam, we can hon­or these girls’ and women’s suf­fer­ing by help­ing today’s vic­tims who, 120 years lat­er, are still lured by the same meth­ods into the same trag­ic fates.

We must find the courage, or the voic­es of today’s vic­tims will be silenced too.