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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Documentary addresses hidden Jewish history

Published: October 23, 2014
Section: News

Yesterday, Oct. 23 the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) previewed “Laid to Rest,” the new documentary by scholar and filmmaker Ornit Barkai. It is a film that details the history of the involvement of Jewish immigrants in Argentina sex trafficking during the late 1900s. Barkai has been filming and editing the documentary over the past several years, and provided the audience an idea of the scope of the story, in addition to showing video clips. The event was attended by a group of around 20 people, most of whom worked with the Center, as well as Brandeis students.

“I stumbled on this story almost completely by accident,” Barkai said. While Barkai was visiting her husband’s family in Buenos Aires, a relative offhandedly recommended that she investigate “Polacas,” European Jewish immigrant women forced into prostitution upon arriving in Argentina. Intrigued, Barkai researched the subject, only to find that there were almost no records or histories available, least of all from the Argentine Jewish community. “All the women involved in the trade were remembered as ‘unclean,’ even though they were forced into prostitution,” Barkai said. As a result, many records were kept hidden or destroyed.

Like her initial discovery of the “Polacas,” Barkai found many of her sources by luck and coincidence. Through her investigations, Barkai was able to find journalists, historians and activists, most of whom appeared in the video in candid interviews, who had done their own research and were happy to speak about it. Barkai and her husband, who served as her translator, were even able to find and interview people who were alive during the time when much of the trafficking took place.

The witnesses, researchers and documents described in the video clips worked in tandem to portray the story of hundreds of women targeted by pimps pretending to be suitors traveling through poor Jewish communities, before being tricked into going overseas. In many cases, women were lured with the promise of marriage, and were tied to men in phony ceremonies performed by corrupt rabbis. The mass immigration of poor Jews to Argentina in the late 19th century allowed pimps and other predatory men to entice women with the promise of a better life in a new country. A trailer shown also promised details on how Jewish communities and cultural centers in Argentina and other places have actively worked to bury the story of the women. It also examined the thriving sex industry in Buenos Aires.

The final half hour of the presentation focused on Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian Jewish woman who founded the League of Jewish Women. She sought to protect women and girls from sex trafficking. Pappenheim and fellow activists would often meet immigrant boats arriving in cities like New York, where they would hold signs warning new arrivals about predatory men. They also offered shelter for women escaping prostitution. Though Pappenheim and the League of Jewish Women never reached Argentina, her ideas influenced many of the women there, who worked to escape forced prostitution and bring down the community that protected traffickers.

Barkai did not announce a release date for the finished documentary, but stressed the importance of the story in light of current statistics about sex trafficking. The most recent United Nations report cited over 27 million people as currently being trafficked against their will, 80 percent of whom are women and girls. “As much as this story is about a shameful part of Jewish history, it is really about gender,” said WSRC director Shulamit Reinharz. “It is really about how gender is used as a way to entrap and enslave women, and how that fits into history and culture.”