Isabel Vincent’s groundbreaking exploration brings to light a dark chapter in our recent history: the white slave trade and the international Jewish mobsters behind it.
From the end of the 1860s until the beginning of the Second World War, thousands of young, impoverished Jewish women, most of them from the hard-scrabble shtetls of Eastern Europe, were sold into slavery by a notorious gang of mobsters called the Zwi Migdal. While the enterprise controlled brothels in various locales, its main centres of operation were Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and, to a lesser extent, New York City.
To recruit vulnerable country girls, pimps would target villages of desperate poverty, where they posed as respectable suitors of considerable means who had made their money abroad. They would arrange sham marriages to their victims and promise them an easy life in the New World. But once they’d crossed the ocean, these Jewish women found themselves caught up in the white slave trade.
Under frequently brutal conditions, the young women had to service the needs of a booming population of immigrant men. An added hardship to endure was being vehemently shunned by the “respectable” Jewish community. Banned from synagogue and reviled by their neighbors, the women were forbidden from partaking in the sacred Jewish burial ritual. So prostitutes banded together to form the Society of Truth, with the promise to do all could they could to help each other be buried in dignity. Through the society the women observed religious life together, setting up private synagogues and kosher kitchens. Cast aside by their community, they created their own: a society of love, honour to God and faith in each other.
With the determination and skill of her training as an investigative journalist, Isabel Vincent tells an unforgettable and gripping tale of a shameful chapter in recent history.
About the author
Isabel Vincent is an investigative reporter for the New York Post. Previously, she was a foreign correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro and before that she covered the conflicts that led to the war in Kosovo. Her work has appeared in magazines and newspapers all over the world, including the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, L’Officiel, and Time. She is the author of four books: Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World’s Wealthiest Widows; Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas; Hitler’s Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold and the Pursuit of Justice; and See No Evil: The Strange Case of Christine Lamont and David Spencer. The recipient of numerous journalism honors, including the Canadian Association of Journalist’s Award for Excellence in Investigative Journalism, she has been a journalism fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. Vincent won the National Jewish Book Award in Canada for Bodies and Souls and the Yad Vashem Award for Holocaust History for Hitler’s Silent Partners. She grew up in Toronto and speaks French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Today, she lives in New York.
Excerpt: Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas (by (author) Isabel Vincent)
Gentlemen from America
Isaac Boorosky hated the shtetls. He hated the mud, which always formed a hard crust around his patent-leather shoes and splattered his finely tailored trousers. He hated the stench -- the slightly sweet smell of moldy hay mixed with human excrement and wood smoke -- that assaulted his nostrils and seeped into his clothes. He might have learned early on from his business associates to soak a silk handkerchief in rose water and hold it to his nose as he squelched through the mud, past the mangy dogs and the packs of filthy children dressed in rags, snot streaming from their noses. But the handkerchief trick worked only for a few minutes. Nothing could block out the odors of poverty. They lingered on, invading his pores, thrusting him into the past.
Had he really grown up in such a place?
Sometimes it may have seemed difficult to believe that he, Isaac Boorosky, man of the world, had spent his childhood in such a backwater, surrounded by Jewish peasants in their coarsely woven garments and their wooden clogs, their looks forlorn.
These were his people, to be sure, but he was -- what was the phrase they liked to use about him now? -- an American gentleman. Isaac was Russian by birth, but how convenient that his impressive array of travel documents -- all of them forged by a colleague in South America -- identified him variously as a Brazilian jeweler and an Argentine rancher. It's true he had "interests" in Brazil and Argentina, and even in South Africa. But the source of his lucrative business was still in Russia and Poland -- in the miserable shtetls that he so despised.
Still, he never corrected the Jewish peasants when they referred to him as "that gentleman from America" and treated him with the same reverence they would bestow on a nobleman or even a rabbi. His sudden wealth had taught him quickly to play the part of the elegant gentleman. He smoked cigars and drank champagne from crystal goblets, and his hands were always beautifully manicured. In Rio de Janeiro -- how far away it must have seemed to him now! -- his Spanish tailor sewed him beautiful silk-lined suits, which he was fond of wearing with a black silk top hat.
In what would become his last official portrait -- a sketch made by a Rio police officer shortly after his arrest in 1896 -- Isaac, a solidly built man with fleshy cheeks and almond eyes, is beautifully dressed in a frock coat, matching vest, starched collar, and silk cravat. His hair is jet black and oiled, his mustache perfectly trimmed.
Sophia Chamys had never met a man like Isaac, and years later in Brazil, when she told her story to the police, she could still recall the smell of the lavender oil that he used on his hair and the feel of his silk handkerchiefs against her skin. But most of all she remembered his hands -- so refined and smooth, like a child's. In the shtetl on the outskirts of Warsaw where Sophia shared a one-room thatch-roofed house with her parents and younger sister, people had working hands -- misshapen, permanently chapped, sunburned, and covered in hardened blisters.
Sophia's father had such hands, from years of working the fields, eking out a living by collecting hay that he sold to local farmers. Already at thirteen, Sophia had hands that were rough and calloused from helping her parents. Perhaps she instinctively hid them behind her back when she felt Isaac's gaze upon her for the first time.
They met in Warsaw, at Castle Square, under the bronze statue of King Sigismund III, who stood defiantly clutching a large cross on a tall majestic column, overlooking stately row houses and the fifteenth-century royal castle. The Chamys family gazed up at the legendary king, who spent much of his long reign on a war footing, trying to reconquer his native Sweden. He was, on rare occasions, good to the Jews, introducing legislation that made it possible for them to do business, to work the land. It's unlikely that the Chamys family was familiar with seventeenth-century Polish history, but something about the noble figure of this handsome, wild-eyed king seemed to inspire reverence, even nearly two and a half centuries after his death. Congregating at the statue had become something of a tradition for the Chamys family on these fruitless trips to Warsaw. Perhaps they considered this rendezvous beneath the king a pilgrimage to hope: Things would be different on the next trip to the city; bad luck could not last a lifetime.
Sophia and her family had walked the twenty-five miles from their shtetl to Warsaw, where her father had been promised work. But as was so often the case in the unhappy history of the Chamys family, the job never materialized. Standing with their oily cloth bundles under Sigismund III, the family was preparing for the long walk home when the elegant stranger loomed over them.
Isaac Boorosky approached the bedraggled family, introducing himself to Sophia's father as a successful businessman and a Jew. He told them he was looking for a maid to work in his widowed mother's kitchen in Lodz, which was just a six-hour journey over dirt roads from Warsaw. He nodded toward Sophia. How old is she?
Isaac didn't waste any time. After years of training, he knew how to spot a lucrative prospect. He knew to look beyond the ragged, loose garments and the filthy clogs worn by the peasant girls. He quickly saw Sophia's attributes -- the milky skin, the outline of budding breasts, the full red lips, the wisps of raven hair peeking out of the dark kerchief. What luck to discover such a specimen in the center of Warsaw! How fortunate that his expensive new shoes and trousers would be spared the shtetl mud. "Eight rubles," said Isaac, barely containing his excitement and removing the money from his pocket. The amount was an advance on Sophia's first six months of service, and Isaac pressed the coins into her father's rough, sunburned hands.
“Vincent demonstrates her strength as a writer and a storyteller, which enables her to at least partially retrieve this all-but-lost world.”
“The book sheds light on an obscure page of history that is both tragic and uplifting. Victims of unscrupulous gangsters, the women portrayed in Bodies and Souls displayed spirit and strength in their solidarity with each other, their efforts on behalf of their children, and in their adherence to their faith and culture.”
–The Gazette (Montreal)
“Vincent has managed to bring these women back to life. Her imagination has embellished her research and through her eyes we can see their dreams, hopes and despair.”
–The Globe and Mail