FORCED TO SELL THEIR BODIES FAR FROM HOME
The Maclean’s Excerpt
A new book by ISABEL VINCENT uncovers the little-known tragedy of Jewish slave-prostitutes
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 13, 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.
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 centre 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.
Sophia’s father hesitated, even though
From the 1860s to the late 1930s, thousands of young Jewish women from Eastern Europe were sold, tricked or forced into prostitution in Latin America, South Africa, India and the United States. Living in poverty in urban ghettos or rural shtetls, they fell victim to a gang of Jewish mobsters called Zwi Migdal. In Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas, Canadian journalist and author Isabel Vincent describes their lives of hardship and essential banishment from the Jewish community. What follows is an excerpt from the tale of a 13-year-old victim.
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 15th-century royal casde. 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 25
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
the money must have seemed a huge amount—the equivalent of a year’s wages for the family.
Later Sophia recalled the stab of anger she felt as her father refused the handful of coins. For even at 13, Sophia must have been aware that there were few prospects for young women from the shtetls, particularly those on the teeming outskirts of Warsaw. One foreign visitor had described them as manure-carpeted encampments— “the eternal dwelling place of poverty.”
Sophia knew that girls from the shtetl ended up exactly like their mothers and grandmothers. They seemed to spend a lifetime covered in soot as they cooked over a wood stove. They left their homes at sunrise to work in the fields, returning at dusk to prepare the evening meal, which many days was nothing more than a thin potato soup or cucumbers and onions in brine
mixed with buttermilk—if there was any buttermilk to be had.
For a girl like Sophia, there was no escape from the same kind of drudgery. Her parents were poor, even by shtetl standards, and could do little to improve their lot in life. They could not afford to send their daughters to school. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was little in the way of education for girls, even among wealthier Jews.
“I may have to beg to feed my daughters,” Sophia recalled her father telling the handsome stranger in Warsaw. “But I will never be separated from them.”
Isaac refused to give up. He was solicitous and charming, assuring Sophia’s father that he would watch over Sophia as if she were his own daughter.
Like my own daughter.
The words might have sounded vaguely ominous to Sophia’s father, but he chose to
keep his fears to himself. Perhaps sensing the man’s suspicions, Isaac handed him a card with his mother’s address in Lodz. It was an open invitation for the family to visit Sophia whenever they found themselves in the city. No doubt, Isaac knew the sacrifice involved for the Chamyses in travelling even the shortest distance.
No, he would be safe from their scrutiny in Lodz. It was unlikely the Chamys family would ever make the journey. They were so poor they couldn’t afford to take the train or travel by cart. They would have to walk if they wanted to see Sophia, and the trip would surely take them several days.
Finally, through heart-wrenching sobs, Sophia’s father nodded his acquiescence. Of course, he had misgivings—the kind that lodged themselves at the pit of his stomach and made him feel queasy. He knew it was wrong to hand his daughter over like this, even to this obviously refined, worldly man.
Had he heard the rumours of Jewish girls being taken into white slavery by fellow Jews? Young, beautiful girls like Sophia never heard from again? Was it the stuff of urban legend, crafted by wary peasants like himself who had an innate fear of the big city? Or was it another tall tale invented by the anti-Semitic authorities to dredge up hatred against the Jews—another pretext for a bloody pogrom? Did Jewish strangers really prey on the daughters of the poor, and sell them into bondage? It was hard to believe.
In the end, Sophia’s father agreed to take the elegant stranger’s money.
Sophia was sold to a stranger in a public square in broad daylight in the civilized centre of Europe. Deep in his heart, Sophia’s father must have known that he was indeed selling his daughter. Perhaps it was the dark realization that led to his wrenching sobs during the negotiations.
AT THE TURN of the last century, men like Isaac Boorosky belonged to a cadre of wellorganized Jewish pimps who scoured the impoverished shtetls and urban ghettos of Eastern Europe looking for girls and women
The Maclean’s Excerpt
to sell into prostitution around the world.
They arrived in the most miserable backwaters, armed with gifts of coffee, chocolate, or cheaply made garments—luxuries that were unattainable for most Eastern European Jews. Like Isaac Boorosky, they were impeccably dressed and spoke vaguely of their business holdings abroad. Some said they were ranchers, others that they owned jewellery stores or garment factories. They told the shtetl elders that they were looking for young girls to work in their factories, or, as in Isaac’s case, that they needed another person on their domestic staff.
But most often the elegant strangers said they had returned to their own roots in the shtetls to search for suitable brides. Of course, it was an outright lie, but it was calculated to allay the fears of ignorant and suspicious peasants who knew little of the world outside their isolated communities.
Travelling through Poland in the early part of the 20th century, a French newspaperman described how the village matchmaker sometimes worked with the traffickers, cynically giving them advice on which women to target in small towns: “Such and such a house is no good: the girls are sickly. Avoid such and such a family: the father and mother mean to ask a high price. There’s only a grandmother in that house and she won’t last long. Take the child, she’s the best bargain in the district. I’ve watched her for you like a peach on a wall. You need only pick it!”
The practice of recruiting young women for prostitution through promises of marriage became so commonplace that after the First World War, the League of Nations began to issue warnings. In one of its reports, the world body recounted the offences of an unidentified Polish trafficker, arrested in Poland following the war, who had “married” 30 girls, all of whom ended up in brothels in South America. The trafficker had found them through a marriage broker in Warsaw, who regularly put ads in the Yiddish newspapers.
DID SOPHIA’S FATHER suspect Isaac Boorosky of being a pimp?
There must have been something sinister about the man, something he didn’t trust. A week after their emotional goodbye in Warsaw, Sophia’s father decided to visit his daughter in Lodz. He was determined to
return the eight rubles to Boorosky and take Sophia back to the shtetl where she belonged.
But Sophia did not want to leave with her father. For seven days, she had worked hard for Boorosky’s mother, who lived in a large, well-appointed apartment in the centre of Lodz. Sophia had never known such luxury and couldn’t believe her luck. Perhaps she was enjoying the luxurious sensation of sleeping
THE PROSTITUTES soon set
her straight. Isaac Boorosky was a ruffian, they said. He bought and sold women, and he had bought her, Sophia Chamys.
on cotton sheets in her own bed. Had she tasted chocolate for the first time? Perhaps she had taken a bath in a real porcelain tub filled with hot water. In any case, Sophia must have imagined that she was turning into a proper lady. Isaac had bought her a beautiful taffeta dress and even petticoats made of silk!
Yes, everything is fine, Isaac told Sophia’s father. Sophia is a hard worker, and well liked. Besides, confided Isaac to Sophia’s father, if she continues to do such excellent work, perhaps she would even make a good wife.
Was this a marriage proposal? Did Isaac Boorosky mean to marry his daughter?
The promise must have done much to allay the old man’s fears of bondage and white slavery, if such thoughts had actually crossed his mind. Now that he was convinced that Isaac Boorosky’s intentions were noble, Sophia’s father could return to the shtetl confident that she would be properly
treated. His daughter would marry a gentleman, and perhaps now the family’s life would change completely.
In fact, the day after Sophia’s father returned to the shtetl, Sophia’s life did change radically. Isaac told her she would no longer be working in his mother’s kitchen. He asked her to put on the silk petticoats and taffeta dress. Sophia learned that she was to accompany Isaac to another one of his apartments, on the outskirts of Lodz. When they arrived, Sophia and Isaac ate what seemed to Sophia a sumptuous feast. Later, she would recall little of what they ate, and only remembered that Isaac filled and refilled her glass with beer, which tasted bitter and made her feel light-headed and sleepy.
Sophia later told police that she had no memory of what happened next. But when she woke up the following morning, she was deeply embarrassed to find herself lying in bed naked. Worst of all, Isaac was lying in bed beside her. “Now you are my wife,” he said simply.
Brought up in a society where women rarely questioned men, least of all their husbands, Sophia believed everything Isaac told her. On the morning following the rape, when he deposited her in a house full of women—a place that Sophia mistook for a hotel—she didn’t think to ask him why.
The prostitutes soon set her straight. Isaac Boorosky was a ruffian, they said. He bought and sold women, and he had bought her, Sophia Chamys, who was now the newest addition to his brothel. Sophia never talked about what she felt when she found herself in a brothel for the first time. She would only say that there must have been some kind of mistake; she refused to believe the prostitutes, and naively walked back to Isaac’s mother’s home in the city to sort things out.
Isaac greeted her warmly, but he made no mention of the brothel. How sorry he was that things had gotten out of hand. Yes, they would be together again soon, he reassured her, but first she must do him a favour. Perhaps he told her he needed to pay back a loan and would have to hire her out to a business associate in Konin. She would work as a scullery maid for a few months, until his debt was paid, and then they would be reunited in Lodz. On some level, Isaac must have made it clear that as his wife, Sophia
The Maclean's Excerpt | >
would need to help him as much as she could, obey him without question.
Years later, Sophia readily admitted to police that the reason she decided to go to Konin was because Isaac had promised to send her by train. How many times had she and her sister heard the trains rattling to Warsaw! No one in the shtetl could afford to ride on a train—not the tailor, the storekeeper, or the cantor. She would do anything to ride on a train, and believed Isaac when he said they would be separated for only a few months.
When she arrived in Konin, Sophia knew instantly she was destined for another brothel; this time she understood the brutal reality of what her young life had become. Isaac had sold her to a pimp named Libet, who ran a decrepit brothel on the outskirts of town. For more than a month Sophia worked as a prostitute for well-oiled and mustachioed gentlemen like Isaac, the man she still stubbornly considered her husband.
It’s not clear how Sophia managed to escape the brothel. She told police that after she found out she was pregnant, she decided to return to the shtetl. She would have to tell her parents she was pregnant with her husband’s child. There was no shame in that. But she could never, ever, tell them that she had been working in a common house, as a prostitute.
In the end, Sophia could say nothing about her ordeal to her family. The news would cause unbearable shame. But as she approached her old house in the shtetl, her parents and sister embraced her, and all began to speak at once. They touched her hair, felt her new taffeta frock, admired her shoes. Look at Sophia! they exclaimed with great joy. She’s fat and so beautiful!
But where is your new husband?
At that moment Sophia learned that Isaac had promised her father that he would marry her when the old man showed up in Lodz to take her back to the shtetl. So it was true, Isaac’s intentions were good. But why did he want her to work in a brothel?
Three days after she was reunited with her family, Isaac appeared at their door. He told Sophia’s parents that he had urgent business in America and could not possibly leave without his new bride.
There was no time for a proper wedding, he said. Could the Chamys family round
up two witnesses, and could they meet in the shtibl [prayer house] for the ceremony?
Even though the wedding was organized in such haste, and would not be officiated by a religious leader, the Chamys family would not have thought anything amiss. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, such ritual weddings were common in the smaller, poorer shtetls where rabbis were rarely present. The ceremony required only the presence of one Jewish witness, and was commonly referred to in Yiddish as a stille chuppah or “silent wedding.”
Of course, this was very convenient for pimps like Isaac Boorosky, for whom the stille chuppah became a very important tool, allowing them to entrap ignorant women and rob them of their civil rights. It is not known how many impoverished young women Isaac married in these “silent weddings.” Sometimes the multiple marriages got out of hand, and traffickers would find themselves juggling too many women. The authorities who arrested Boorosky in Brazil said that it was not uncommon for him to return to South America from his frequent business trips to Eastern Europe with more than one wife. On one trip he “married” a
Russian girl, took her to Austria, and hid her in a hotel while he used the same means to secure a local girl. He told the Russian wife that he needed to stop in Austria to buy up properties and to hire a housekeeper for his home in America. Like Sophia, the Russian woman would not have thought to question the man she took to be her new husband. A few days after his marriage to the new woman in Austria, Isaac confessed to the Russian woman that in order to arrange the Austrian’s documents, he had to marry her as well.
Why did women put such blind trust in men like Isaac? The answer is easily summed up in one word: America.
“In America, people eat an orange every day.” How many times had Sophia and her sister heard their neighbours say that? In the shtetl, oranges were rare, and reserved for very special occasions. But in America everyone was rich and oranges were plentiful.
People in America also ate chicken every day, and had clothes made of silk.
Following the ceremony in the shtetl, Sophia returned to Lodz with Isaac, who told her she would sail with one of his business associates—a man he identified only as Chumpaisk—to Buenos Aires, a city on the other side of the world. The journey would take exactly 22 days by sea, he told her.
DID CHUMPAISK rape her on the ship? Did he beat her so hard that she could now walk only with great difficulty?
It was a common occurrence among pimps who sailed with their young “wives” to South America. Aboard the ship, the men would at first calmly explain that once they docked in Buenos Aires, their “wives” would be expected to begin working as prostitutes. If a woman resisted, she was often raped and beaten into submission. The pimp, according to one police report, “undertook a system of planned demoralization on board ship, where he completely changed his language and manner.” For girls like Sophia who could speak only Yiddish, communication with any of the ship officials proved impossible. Like Sophia, most girls must have resigned themselves to their fate.
It’s not clear’ when Sophia found out that Isaac Boorosky, her “husband,” had sold her to Chumpaisk in Lodz. Did Chumpaisk tell her on the ship, during the beatings and her frequent crying fits? Or did he tell her when they arrived in America?
It didn’t matter, in the end. By the time they cleared immigration formalities in Buenos Aires, Sophia probably already knew she was Chumpaisk’s slave and would have to do his bidding.
Sophia eventually returned to Boorosky and continued to work as a prostitute back in Poland, where her daughter died in infancy, and then again in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. After years of beatings and misery, at the age of 18 she denounced Boorosky to police in Rio. He was not arrested until a crackdown years later. Months after going to the Rio police, Sophia died of tuberculosis. Í71
Excerpted from Bodies and Souls by Isabel Vincent. Copyright © 2005 Isabel Vincent. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
ONE POLISH trafficker, arrested
following the First World War, had ‘married’ 30 girls, all of whom ended up in brothels in South America