Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Tuesday, November 20th, Elsa Drucaroff, author of The Promised Hell: A Zwi Migdal Prostitute lectured on the plight of Jewish prostitutes in Argentina.
Drucaroff is Argentinean and Jewish. “My father is Jewish,” she said, so “for me, Jewish culture was an important part of life.” This interest spurred her research into the Argentinean government’s virtual endorsement of prostitution, and the Jewish women it affected.
Argentina’s government unofficially condoned prostitution from the 1860s to the 1940s because of the massive profits the state received from the brothels’ taxes. “It [prostitution] was a voluntary policy decision of the Argentine state. It was not just allowed, but encouraged. Argentina was a Catholic state, but it believed that prostitution was a necessary evil that protected good women, families, and the gender order,” Drucaroff said.
Corruption and state profit prevented the closing and regulation of brothels.
“Prostitution was a very important source of money. Brothels paid lots of taxes to the city. Twenty-five percent of the state’s money in 1920 came from brothel taxes. It [prostitution] was not a problem of Jewish people; it was a very good business for the state,” she said.
Drucaroff spoke about the Zwi Migdal, an Argentinean Jewish association of pimps that lured impoverished European women to work in Argentina’s brothels. “The association paid for travels to Poland to look for girls. They looked for disempowered girls living in miserable places.”
A major obstacle in shutting down organizations such as Zwi Migdal was corruption. According to Drucaroff, “They [Zwi Migdal] had a legal association. They built a building and their own cemetery. They knew they could buy policemen and judges.”
Zwi Migdal was founded in 1906, though the activity of Jewish pimps started decades earlier. “It [Zwi Migdal] stopped when we had a fascist coup d’etat. The new general said that he would purify the country. Of course, prostitution did not stop.”
Drucaroff also discussed the mainstream Jewish community’s reaction to prostitution and its attempts to shun those who trafficked in women. “The Jews were very scared of anti-Semitism. They didn’t allow the pimps to go to synagogue or be buried, they didn’t allow them to be Jewish. In some movie theatres, there would be a Yiddish sign, ‘Pimps not allowed’,” she said.
Drucaroff’s novel, The Promised Hell: A Zwi Migdal Prostitute, draws on her research about the era. “The book is the story of a Polish girl who comes to Argentina to work as a prostitute. The story is fiction, but I know the real factors. I know it exists in my community,” she said.