Bod­ies and Souls: The Trag­ic Plight of Three Jew­ish Women Forced into Pros­ti­tu­tion in the Americas

Isabel Vin­cent
  • Review
By – July 30, 2012

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.

Paula Lubin is a human­i­ties teacher at the North Shore Hebrew Acad­e­my Mid­dle School. She has writ­ten for a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions, most recent­ly the New York Health­care Law Update.

Discussion Questions