White Slaves

Christopher Driver

  • Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight against White Slavery, 1870-1939 by Edward Bristow
    Oxford, 340 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 19 822588 1
  • Peasants, Rebels and Outcastes by Mikiso Hane
    Scolar, 297 pp, £12.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 85967 670 6

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’.

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