Richard Titmuss has cast light on civilisation by comparing what happens when blood is sold and when it is donated. Edward Bristow’s subject, likewise, is a service which may be either donated or traded – or obtained under duress. His exploration of it takes him into unfamiliar recesses of public and private depravity, and shines a torch into the laundry room of Judaism.
This is to take white slavery as seriously as it was taken in the years before far worse befell in Europe. But it was never easy to keep a solemn countenance in the Runyonesque world that greeted the transatlantic voyager – stuffed full of promises and stowed away in a coal hole – who happened to find herself in Buenos Aires or the Lower East Side ghetto. Take the café at 92 Second Avenue, New York. Its owner was Abe (‘the Rabbi’) Rabbelle, president of the Independent Benevolent Association, ‘the scaffolding for Jewish commercial vice’. (Its initials must have escaped everyone’s memory when our own IBA was formed.) The listed habitués included ‘Kid Rags, mack and stuss house owner, Crazy Itch, gambler, Charlie Argument, strike breaker,’ and other leftovers from the cast of Guys and Dolls; while among the whores who might drop in for a word or two in passing was ‘the very successful Jenny Morris, nearly six feet tall, who was known as “Jenny the Factory” because of her rather unusual capacity for work’.
Bristow’s four-part counterpoint of criminality, market forces, sexual appetite and religious organisation is fully worked out in Buenos Aires. Today, this city’s historic role as the sin capital of the New World has faded far below Fleet Street’s horizon: even the Sun missed its opportunity last summer to speculate at feature length about the occupation of the Junta’s grandmothers. But during the colonisation of Argentina a century ago, ‘everything was arranged for high profits: the imbalance of numbers between males and females, the Latin cultural toleration of prostitutes, thorough police and political corruption, weak laws and new shipping routes.’ East European Jews never monopolised transnational prostitution systems – far from it. But enough of them were in the right place at the right time for an explanation to be worth seeking.
The first man through the revolving door was a Hungarian, ‘Bohemian Dovidl’, who had been brought up in his elder brother’s licensed brothel in Budapest. In 1867 he read in a newspaper that scarcity of women was the only drawback to the Eldorado on the La Plata coast of South America. He promptly took ship, and on arrival in Buenos Aires had himself baptised by the Jesuits. They thought highly of his plan to bring women into the country, and even advanced him money for the fares of the first batch, who were sold on arrival at windfall prices as the importer’s ‘daughters’ and ‘nieces’ to respectable men desperate for wives. Or so runs the story – one of the few which Bristow cannot verify from other sources and has to call ‘emblematic of the truth’.
Free-range arrangements of this kind later gave place to battery methods. But Buenos Aires is unintelligible without Galicia. One should begin with the supply side, not the demand side. As the eloquent and – in the social context of pre-1914 Vienna – courageous rabbi Joseph Bloch put it, ‘one must have seen the misery of the Polish Jewish cities for oneself, in order to understand that a trip to Buenos Aires is not frightening.’ Life expectancy was low – it was always a choice between VD abroad or malnutrition at home – and there were frequent calls from Latin America for new recruits or ‘remounts’, as they were called in a phrase that would have appealed to Sir Harry Flashman. Hersch Gottlieb, Sam Lubelski, ‘Napoleon’ Dickenfaden and other notorieties negotiated for them with agents and principals (that is, parents) at the equivalent of trade fairs in Poland and Austrian Galicia. One well-known exchange point, where Israel Meyrowitz was arrested for extradition to Germany, was the Hotel Silliger in Oswiecim (Auschwitz). The bargaining procedure is described vividly enough in Sholem Asch’s novel Mottke the Thief, though Bristow says that the facts of the traffic as a whole are closer to darker Yiddish fiction such as Hirschbein’s Miriam and Mendele’s Valley of Tears. The persistent tales of auction blocks – black slave style – in restaurants at ports of arrival may or may not be well-founded, but ‘it seems likely that something like nine thousand Jewish women came to practise prostitution in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay during the quarter-century 1889-1914.’ Jewish procurers shared with the French the two hundred or so licensed houses in Buenos Aires at this period. Doubtless many of the girls were willing enough, at least initially, and the survivors, as they aged, became madams themselves. But there was nothing exceptional in Clara Adam’s experience with the kaftane Sigmund Reicher. ‘Lured from Germany by his offer of employment as a seamstress, she was raped during the journey by one of his accomplices, and virtually locked in a brothel from which she finally escaped in her slip at four o’clock one morning.’
The Paris journalist Albert Londres, author of an engaging and widely-read documentary novel The Road to Buenos Ayres (1928), understandably concentrated upon the ‘Franchucas’ who formed the aristocracy of the trade: they commanded five pesos a time to the Polaks’ two, and were also quicker to realise the productivity gains obtainable from oral variations. But he traced the East Europeans, too, from the sordid settlements outside Warsaw to the queues for their services in the casitas, where a really good worker could turn 400 tricks in a week. ‘The veritable White Slave Traffic, such as is conceived by the popular imagination, is carried on by the Polaks ... on the German model, that is to say, very methodically.’
Not until 1930 did respectable Jews in Buenos Aires, by then the large majority, feel strong enough to mount prosecutions and make them stick on the Zvi Migdal, the fraternity that had been founded to protect the interests of ‘the unclean ones’, as they were called. Zvi Migdal paid for the separate burialgrounds which the rabbis demanded: ‘In keeping with the South American custom, each gravestone had an enamelled photograph attached. One could study the features of the deceased pimp – fat, homberg, handlebar moustache – and read the incongruous inscription, “In the garden of Eden his soul rests.” ’ The founder of Zvi Migdal judged that religion would keep the women happy, if nothing else would, and he built them their own synagogue.
The term ‘white slavery’ was first used in the context of prostitution by a British vice campaigner, Dr Michael Ryan, as early as 1839, and it was used with special reference to Jewish procurers in the East End of London. When the Jewish Chronicle put aside the sense of shame in its community and decided to notice the problem, seventy years later, its comments went much further than might have been expected, identifying in the procurers’ activities on the international market ‘what is really an inversion of certain special characteristics with which Jews are endowed’. By then London, though it became the home of the formidable Silver gang until they moved lock, stock and brothel to South Africa in 1898, was less remarkable for actual white slave traffic than for public hysteria about it. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1912 even provided for the flogging of convicted pimps: according to Dr Bristow, this measure sent a lot of them on their travels again to countries with more indulgent penal systems. (The reader of this absorbing book must expect his liberal assumptions or sensibilities to be put in check here and there.)
Throughout these pages, and not least because the author scrupulously refrains from labouring the point, the reader finds himself relating Jewish white slavery to the Final Solution and the climate of public opinion in Europe that eased it into German policy. In the Vienna of Hitler’s youth, the brothels of Mesdames Schick and Sachs, and the corruption of a certain police inspector Piss, were as famous as Sachertorte. This helped Hitler to write later in Mein Kampf: ‘In no other city of Western Europe could the relationship between Jewry and prostitution and even now the white slave traffic be studied better.’ It naturally made no difference to anti-semites that the victims of the traffickers were themselves almost exclusively Jewish. As Rabbi Bloch perceived, white slavery had become ‘the sexualisation of the blood libel’, which as late as 1900 in Central Europe put Jews on trial for the ritual murder of Christian children. Bloch also firmly maintained, and Bristow concurs, that anti-semitism was a cause rather than a consequence of white slavery. That is, if either the Tsars or the commissars of Russia had been less concerned to discriminate against their Jewish population, the pool of squalor and starvation that made the traffic possible might never have formed. But once it became clear internationally that in Latin America a substantial proportion (elsewhere a small minority) of the early Jewish settlement were engaged in mädchenhandels, official Jewry found itself in a lethal double bind. If it kept quiet about the unclean ones, it would be accused of winking at wickedness for commercial gain. But if it expelled offenders from synagogues, set up protection committees and pursued prosecutions, the whole problem would become notorious. Either way, Judaism was saddled with a public relations disaster beside which the brothels of Paddington were but a fleabite on the rump of the Church Commissioners.
This choice was itself defined in religious terms by sensitive Jews. For Claude Montefiore, whose collection of printed papers in the London Library is used here to good effect, it was a choice between chillul hashem (‘defiling the Name’) or kiddush (‘sanctification’, hence ‘integrity’). To their credit, many brave and tireless Jews on both sides of the Atlantic chose to expose the truth, let it fall where it might. They ranged from Bertha Pappenheim (the ‘Anna O’ of the Freud-Breuer casebook, whose multiple life surely deserves a comprehensive biography) to less celebrated inquirers, social workers and publicists. But they were too close to the traffic to pull its roots up and disentangle them. Even Bristow is better at research than analysis. The pious blamed deficient upbringing, and the progressive blamed primal poverty in the Old World or sweatshop drudgery in the New – Mamie Pinzer or someone like her must have been the author of the New York Yiddish comment on street-walking quoted by Lincoln Steffens: Es ist besser wie packin pants.
As the Victorian Irish proved to the satisfaction of John Burns, however, not all victims of malnutrition and unemployment succumb to prostitution. The medical educationalist Abraham Flexner – evidently the anonymous ‘student’ whom Theodore Dreiser mentions in his introduction to Londres’s book – spent two years at John D. Rockefeller’s request compiling his report on Prostitution in Europe (1914). Returning to the topic in his autobiography a quarter-century later, he concluded: ‘Prostitution occurs not solely as the result of economic pressure, but within the area of economic pressure under the influence of other conditions’ – among which he cited, relevantly enough for our own London, not just alcohol and low mentality, but ‘the break-up of home or the destruction of home life, resulting from the constant influx of detached young men and women from the country into the large towns. Loneliness, sheer loneliness, even among employed persons, is not infrequently a decisive factor.’ Given the scale of rural depopulation and immigrant male labour that Europe has seen since 1945, what an epidemic of prostitution the pill and permissiveness must have saved us from.
Before returning to the contribution that the family psychology and religious organisation of the Ostjuden made to the system Bristow describes, it is worth glancing across to the aetiology of Japanese white slavery, which has recently been explored with equal skill in Mikiso Hane’s Peasants, Rebels and Outcastes. Most of the same techniques of enticement, stowing away, shipboard rape and compulsory indebtedness were borrowed by Japanese procurers. Or perhaps they invented them, for in Nagasaki, a city more influenced than others in pre-Meiji Japan by Christianity and foreign trade together, the traditional Japanese population controls of infanticide and abortion were less practised, and surplus female children were commonly sold abroad. The Japanese variant is that the slaves were younger (twelve upwards) and fared worse. ‘The life story of practically every one of the karayuki is an unmitigated horror story,’ writes Hane. Another difference is that in Japan the practice was ended, not by endogenic agitation as in Europe and America, but by the reforms of the American Occupation after 1945, preceded only by conscientious but inevitably ineffective campaigning by the Japanese Salvation Army under Yamamuro Gunpei in the 1900s.
There is or was something in common between the Jewish and Japanese family structures. Both tended to reduce girls to chattels and expected unquestioning obedience of them. The Galician girls evidently followed the decisions of their relatives and received the blandishments of the alphonses with a sleepwalking trust in the wisdom of the community, a trust very similar to the temper which undid so many millions when the wagon called for them in 1935-45. (With hindsight, of course, even the girls drafted to the stews of Constantinople may have fared better than the siblings they left behind in Poland, but it would be a bold white-slaver who claimed this to his credit.)
The role of specifically religious obedience is summed up in the ingenious use the Jewish procurers made of stillah chuppah, a form of ritual marriage which any adult Jew could witness. This enabled a ruthless man to court a girl, marry her in the eyes of the synagogue (but not of the law), and later coerce her into prostitution. Even without prostitution, an abandoned wife – an agunah – was helpless without a get or certificate of divorce from her ‘husband’, and had no hope of remarrying. The coupling of this system to the street wisdom and commercial instincts of young male Jews – the ‘inversion’ mentioned by the Jewish Chronicle – did not in itself cause the white slave traffic, but it certainly made it a more practicable proposition. One of the many sad ironies in the story Bristow has to tell is that the authorities – whether Catholic or Tsarist – had a simple counter to this stratagem available to them if they had condescended to apply it, and if Orthodox Jews could have brought themselves to co-operate. Rabbis could have been obliged to officiate at all stillah chuppah ceremonies, and licensed to give such unions civil validity too. But in Eastern Europe at the time, that would have been a solution too Western – and perhaps too Christian – to contemplate.
All these threads are drawn together by Bristow with considerable skill. There are rather more literals, inconsistencies of spelling and index omissions than one still expects of this publisher. But it can fairly be said of Bristow, as Dreiser said of Albert Londres, that ‘not Fabre himself, travelling here and there after his spiders, caterpillars and flies, has laboured more diligently or inspected more closely.’