Thursday, October 01, 2009

Understanding the Zwi Migdal Society

Zwi MIgdal Society
(AKA: Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society) 
Edited by The Awareness Center - October 1, 2009

WARNING: Some photographs in this article contain nudity 
"Israel has failed to take adequate measures against human rights abuses of women who have been brought here and forced to provide sexual services", Amnesty International charged. "This is so," a special Amnesty report on the trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union said, "even though many of them have been subjected to human rights abuses such as enslavement or torture, including rape and other forms of sexual abuse, by traffickers, pimps, or others involved in Israel's sex industry." ... One of the main problems is that there is not a law in Israel against selling women ... According to Amnesty International, hundreds of women are brought to Israel from the former Soviet Union every year.  ~ The Jerusalem Post, May 19, 2000

The Zwi Migdal, was an association of men who were involved in the sexual exploitation of Jewish women and children, which operated globallyOriginally The Zwi Migdal association was called the "Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society", yet changed its name to Zwi Migdal on May 7, 1906 –– after the Polish ambassador filed an official complaint to the Argentine authorities regarding the use of the name Warsaw.  
Zwi Migdal means "strong power" in Yiddish and also honored Zvi Migdal, known as Luis Migdal, one of the founders of the organization.
Adolf Weissman, Sigmund Reicher, Adolf Dickenfaden, the "King of the Traffickers", Noe Traumann, the Goldenbergs, the Springfeder brothers of Warsaw, the Goldstein brothers, Jacob Zabladovitch and his three sons and many, many others, including Israel Meyrowitz plied the transatlantic trade. Eventually establishing what was called "the Zwi Migdal Society" which institutionalized the prostitution business in Argentina until its a crackdown in the 1930s.

A partial list of Zwi Migdal's formal directorate of 1926 is revealing: Zacharias Zytnitski, president; Felipe Schön, vice-president, Max Salzman, secretaty; Simon Brotkevich, treasurer; Abe Marchik; Jacob Zabladovich; Sally Berman; and Marcus Posnansky. These Polish and Hungarian Jews were known to police on two continents as they made annual trips back and forth to Eastern Europe to trick, kidnap and recruit fresh faces for their brothels.
In the late 1800s, Buenos Aires, Argentina became the societies headquarters, yet had branch offices in other locations in Argentina, Brazil; New York City, NY; Warsaw, Poland; South Africa; India; and China.

The Zwi Migdal organization operated from the 1860s to 1939. In its heyday, after the First World War, it had four hundred members in Argentina alone. Its annual turnover was fifty million dollars in the early 1900s. 
Buenos Aires, 1864: "La gran aldea" was noted of having 
colonial architecture, narrow and muddy streets.
During the second half of the 19th century, Argentina became an attractive destination for Jews who were fleeing both Russian and Polish pogroms. Buenos Aire's Jewish community grew rapidly.  An orthodox Jewish community was created and with it a newspaper called: "Mundo Israelita".

Due to the lack of laws that would protect both women and children, Arentiana quickly became a sort of mecca for sexual predators, including those involved in human trafficking.   Unfortunately, Jews are not immune to these sorts of problems and the Jewish sex slave trade grew.  

During the massive exodus out of Czarist Russia, those involved in kidnapping and and human trafficking, soon found greener pastures in South America.  Most of the Jewish women and children who were kidnapped were taken from impoverished shtetls (small towns) and brought to Buenos Aires.

Port of Buenos Aires, 1890, immigrants disembarking
This Zwi Migdal Society lured decent girls and young women from Europe in many inventive and deceitful ways.  A very well-mannered and elegant-looking man would appear in a poor Jewish village in places such as Poland or Russia.  He would advertise his search for young women to work in the homes of wealthy Jews in Argentina by posting an ad in the local synagogue.  Fearful of pogroms and often in desperate economic circumstances, the trusting parents would send their naïve daughters away with these men, hoping to give them a fresh start.

The girls, aged mostly 13 to 16, packed a small bag, bade their families farewell and boarded ships to Argentina, believing that they were on their way toward a better future. However, they soon learned the bitter truth. Their period of training as sex slaves, which began on the ship, was cruel and brutal. The young virgins were "broken in" ~ raped, beaten, starved and locked in cages.

Rufiano (pimp) connected to the Zwi Migdal Society
Some of them were married off to local men so that they could obtain entry to Buenos Aires. Far from their families, without friends or knowledge of the language, they were forced to serve men many men per day, their bodies then became property to rufianos (the Jewish mob).

The first boatload of young Jewish women arrived in Brazil in 1867. In 1872, the imperial Brazilian government extradited some Jewish pimps and prostitutes, but the criminal activities continued.

By 1913, there were 431 brothels controlled by the Zwi Migdal in Rio de Janeiro. They were concentrated in a few streets near downtown, in the Mangue neighborhood, a city zone where prostitution was commonplace and legally authorized.

The Argentinean pimps created a total, most effective world, with predefined code words, rules, and methods of operation. For example, a trip abroad to bring a new shipload of fresh girls was called remonta, a term taken from the horse market. 

The Zwi Migdal Organization reached its peak in the 1920s when some 430 rufianos, or pimps, controlled 2,000 brothels with 4,000 women in Argentina alone. The network was well organized and its members cooperated closely to protect their interests. Members were bound by rules that were "based on order, discipline, and honesty."

The largest brothels of Buenos Aires housed 60 to 80 female sex slaves. There were brothels all over Argentina, but most of them were in the big city, in the Jewish quarter, on Junin Street.
Zwi Migdal Society
Prostitutes who failed to satisfy their clients were beaten, fined, or taken to work in provincial houses. Every business transaction was logged. The rufianos "held a meat market" where newly arrived girls were paraded naked in front of traders in places such as Hotel Palestina or Cafe Parisienne.

In one brothel, the Madam, an observant Jewish woman, would not let her women work on Fridays but instructed them herself in the art of lovemaking.

These activities went on undisturbed because they were frequented by government officials, judges, and reporters. City officials, politicians, and police officers were paid off. The pimps had powerful connections everywhere. 

The prostitutes, who were mostly illiterate, destitute and despised by the mainstream Jewish community, banded together to form their own mutual-aid societies. 

Women held hostage by the Zwi Migdal Society
In 1906 in Rio de Janeiro, they formed the Chesed Shel Emes or Society of True Charity, formally registered as Associação Beneficente Funerária e Religiosa Israelita ~ ABFRI (Jewish Benevolent Association for Burial and Religion). Despite their troubled lives and handicaps, they never forgot that they were Jews. 

Although this organization was created and run by women who were being exploited by Zwi Migdal and other Jewish crime syndicates, they had no other connection to criminal activities.
Yet, as the brothels and pimps prospered, the Jewish community still rejected these men. Articles in the local press condemned them and, in 1885, the community established a Jewish Association for the Protection of Women and Girls. Ads posted on the walls in the Jewish quarter called on the locals not to rent their shops to the rufianos. 

Kidnapped and raped Zwi Migdal Society
"The Jewish communities used to throw fund-raising parties, importing European star performers. The pimps would show up every night because they intended to show off their merchandise, wished to maintain their status, and also wanted be like everybody else. 

This is why they made donations, which made the community deliberate whether it wanted their money. On the one hand, the community needed money to build public buildings, but on the other hand, it was 'dirty' money and by taking it they feared they would be legitimizing or tacitly accepting the criminals' exploitation of women. 

This ended one night when Nahum Sorkin, a well-known Zionist activist, stood outside the theater and physically stopped the rufianos from entering. Next, they were banned from the synagogues, and to top it all, they were refused burial in the Jewish cemetery.

Jewish cemetery in Buenos Aires 

This was too much for the rufianos. It is one thing to be banned from the theater or community balls, but eternal rest is a different story. They formed an association of charity among its members. On 7 May 1906, when there were already half a million Jews in Argentina, the Jewish pimps registered legally as the Zwi Migdal Association. 

Naturally, the group later split and the splinter, led by Simon Rubinstein, established its own society named Ashkenazum. Once officially recognized, both associations bought plots of land on the outskirt of Buenos Aires and established their own cemeteries there.

Rachel Lieberman and two of her children
The rufianos' audacity eventually led to their demise. It happened when they refused to forgo their income from the work of one woman, Rachel Lieberman from Lódž, Poland. She, like so many others, was tempted to travel to Buenos Aires answering a matrimonial ad, but was taken to Jonin Street where she was forced to prostitute.
After five years she had enough money to go into the antique furniture business to support herself and her sons but the rufianos made it impossible for her. They did not want her to set an example to their other slaves. But this woman had never been broken.

In desperation, she contacted Superintendent Julio Elsogray. She had heard his name mentioned on the street as one who would not take Zwi Migdal's money and was actually looking for ways to destroy the organization. She slipped into his office one day and gave a detailed account of the connections among the various pimps in the organization management. 

Her testimony was reason enough to launch an extensive investigation. This time, unlike on previous occasions that led to nothing, the findings reached Dr. Rodriguez Ocampo, a judge who would not take Zwi Migdal bribes either. 

The lengthy trial ended in September 1930, with 108 detainees. "The very existence of the Zwi Migdal Organization directly threatens our society," the judge wrote in his verdict, handing down long prison terms. 

Nevertheless, while in prison, the pimps pulled some old strings, appealed their sentences in January 1931, and senior Justice Ministry officials left only three of the convicts in jail, discharging the rest. 

When the media reported this, the public was very upset and pressured the authorities to reverse the discharge decision. Thereafter, hundreds of pimps were deported to Uruguay. "Over the years, they slowly returned one by one, but the era of the huge brothels ended," Sheinfeld summed up this story.
Thus, in 1930 Lieberman and Alsogaray managed to shut down the only association of Jewish panders in the world after 60 years of activity. 

The Zwi Migdal group was an organization that traded in women while its members wore tefillin and built themselves a synagogue. Their history is an embarrassment to all decent Jews. It involved loads of money, corrupt politicians, violent sex, international women trade, hard brutality, rape, and cheating, all lightly spiced with yiddishkeit and God-fearing traditions Among those traditions, according to Jewish beliefs as expressed in the Torah, is that it is perfectly fine to keep slaves so long as they are not Jewish. Yet these Zwi Migdal also enslaved Jewish girls and a great many who ran the bordellos were Jewish women.

Zwi Migdal was featured in I.B. Singer's "Scum" and Sholem Aleichem's "The Man from Buenos Aires." Zwi Migdal is also treated in a recent novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez: The Tango Singer (El Cantor del Tango), Buenos Aires (2004) Grupo Editorial Planeta S.A.I.C. Zwi Migdal's cemetery is the center of Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases, NY, Knopf ed. The life of one of the women exploited by Zwi Migdal is the center of Ilan Sheinfeld's "The Tale of a Ring", only available in the original Hebrew
מעשה בטבעת, Jerusalem, Keter publishers.


See also Patricia Suarez's trilogy Las polacas, Colección teatro vivo, Buenos Aires 2002, several versions of which appeared on the Buenos Aires stage.

Also treated in a 1994 novel by Horacio Vázquez Rial: Frontera Sur (Southern Frointier)

Film References

The plot of the 1991 film Naked Tango directed by Leonard Schrader is based on the activities of Zwi Migdal. The film's heroine assumes the identity of an Eastern European woman traveling to Buenos Aires to meet a prospective husband and in the process gets herself caught up in the prostitution network. The film, however, is motivated more by sensationalism than by indignation.

The 2001 Brazilian film Sonhos Tropicais (Tropical Dreams) directed by Andre Sturm and based on a book written by Moacyr Scliar depicts the hardships of an innocent eastern European Jewish girl, played by Brazilian actress Carolina Kasting, lured by fake promises of a marriage in Rio de Janeiro who ends up in Zwi Migdal prostitution network against a backdrop of the turbulent political agitation that swept Rio de Janeiro in the early 1900´s known as "Revolta da Vacina" (Vaccine Revolt).

For more information on the Zwi Migdal Society: CLICK HERE

  1. An article in Ynet about Ilan Sheinfeld's book.
  2. An article from the Canadian Jewish News about Vincent's book.
  3. A blog on Sheinfeld's book.
  4. Entry on Ilan Sheinfeld.
  5. Vincent, Isabel ~ Bodies and Souls, Harper Collins ed., New York. ISBN 0060090235 / ISBN 978-0060090234
  6. Kushnir, Beatriz ~ Baile de Máscaras, Imago Editora, São Paulo. ISBN 8531204852
  7. Glickman, Nora ~ The Jewish White Slave Trade and the Untold Story of Raquel Liberman ISBN 0-203-90512-1 ISBN 978-0-203-90512-8

No comments: