Jayson McNamara looks into the legacy of the Jewish migrant who toppled a global sex-trafficking ring in Buenos Aires almost 100 years ago.
South of the capital, in Avellaneda, 38-year-old artist Elianna Renner stands inside a jungle. Two-metre-high cacti poke at one another with their thorns, bodies of flesh entangled to form the perimeters of an impenetrable ecosystem born nearly a century ago. Neighbourhood rubbish thrown over the high dark brick wall, and some frightfully decrepit tombstones, which bear little more than a Star of David, fight for attention.
The irony of death is life itself. Insects swarm this forgotten plot inside the cemetery. Renner is joined by some film technicians who document her work and a small team of local gardeners. And as Avellaneda sleeps its siesta, an open-air aviary abound with local bird species bear witness to the comings and goings, but in general to the abandonment, of this final resting place.
Renner recently learned, scouring through the archives, that Raquel Liberman, the woman who effectively put an end to legal prostitution in Argentina, is buried here. Buried here among the men who are believed to have entrapped her in an elaborate, international sex-trafficking ring known as Zwi Migdal.
Some of the headstones lay flat on the ground. Names have been scratched away and black-and-white photos stolen or scattered across the 1,200-square-metre space. Generic epitaphs in Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Austrian German say little about the cemetery’s inhabitants. The dates of death allude to an era that ended, abruptly, in the early 1930s.
Joined occasionally by members of the broader Jewish community, Renner and her team work to restore the past and bring dignity back to the hero buried among them — ‘La Polaca’, as Liberman is popularly known.
Four years of research saw Renner journey from her base in Bremen, Germany through Brazil, China, South Africa, India, the USA, and Uruguay to Buenos Aires. It was from the port of Bremen that thousands of women bid their final goodbyes to Europe, forced into prostitution through poverty or tricked.
“I was really surprised with Buenos Aires, it was the catalyst for my project,” Renner explains. “I became obsessed with removing this woman buried here from the curse of being considered ‘impure’. It didn’t seem fair.”
The Swiss-born artist and ACILBA (Argentine Jewish-Moroccan Community) recently teamed up with the Anna Frank Museum in Buenos Aires to begin an educational programme at the plot at Avellaneda cemetery that will seek to educate young people about sexual violence.
“Through Raquel, we can empower young girls to use their voice while at the same time educating young boys to be aware and fight against sexual violence and sexism,” she explain. “We have to teach and kids very early on about these issues.”
Rokhl Lea Liberman was born on 10th July 1900 in Berdichev, modern-day Ukraine, beginning a life of hardships amid the devastating poverty that tormented much of Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century.
She followed her husband from Warsaw to Tapalqué, in the province of Buenos Aires, in 1922. But his death just months after her arrival to Argentina saw her depart for the capital, leaving their two sons in the care of a married couple. It is at this point when researchers believe Rokhl was deceived and enslaved by the prostitution ring Zwi Migdal, beginning a new life as ‘Raquel’.
“Liberman emerges in a context of weakness for Zwi Midgal, since the Jewish community in Buenos Aires was very actively and publicly campaigning against them,” says Professor Abraham Lichtenbaum, the head of the Buenos Aires-based Fundación IWO, which specialises in the conservation of Argentina’s own Ashkenazi history.
“It’s important to clarify that the Jewish community in Argentina is the only [migrant] community with documentation on prostitution and trafficking,” he adds. “We talk about ‘Jewish prostitution and trafficking’ today because the small Jewish community at the time was the only [migrant] community to boot them out. Other migrant groups said and did very little against these phenomena in their own communities.
“One wonders if it was in the interest of the Jewish community to have so actively opposed Zwi Midgal instead of carrying out a more subtle boycott,” Lichtenbaum ponders.
The anti-Semitic sentiment within the Argentine Armed Forces, in the broader context of Hitler and Nazi Europe, saw the issue of sex-trafficking and prostitution used against Argentina’s Jews, as it had been against civil rights leaders in Europe like Bertha Pappenheim, the head of the Jüdischer Frauenbund League of Jewish Women.
But Jewish organisations worldwide, rabbis, and the Jewish press had made strong gains in their mission to discredit what they saw as immoral and corrupt gang of criminals.
Groups like Ezra Nashim were established in Buenos Aires to send meeting parties to the port so as to impede sex-traffickers from luring new female arrivals, while in Europe, the German Committee Against the Trafficking of Women and the B’nai B’rith were actively campaigning against trafficking in women through the work of people like the Rabbi Leopold Rosenak of Bremen (1868-1923).
Elements of the Raquel Liberman story are shrouded in mystery. But a 2003 novel by Myrtha Schalom titled ‘La Polaca: Immigrants, ruffians and slaves in the early XX century’ (Galerna) was able to salvage her legacy from the obscurity of a distant past.
As the story goes, Liberman, with the aid of a friend, managed to save money which she hid from her captors, allowing her to “buy her freedom” and open an antiques shop. When Zwi Migdal caught on to her plan, they made threats against Liberman to prevent her example from encouraging other women. And through treachery she was forced to return to the brothel for a second time. In December 1929 she fled, filing a complaint with the police and then testifying before a judge.
The courts acted quickly against the Zwi Migdal on 27th September 1930, ordering the capture of its 442 active members and effectively imprisoning 108 of them. Brothels were closed and, despite prostitution remaining legal until 1936, dozens of Jewish pimps and ‘madams’ were deported. The trial made it onto the front pages of the newspapers though little was said of Liberman.
“There was complicity between the police, the municipality, and the ruffians, who falsified documents saying she continued to work as a prostitute. But the brothel where she supposedly worked had been shut down,” Schalom explains. “They were trying to discredit her, it was important that other women didn’t fight back as she had.”
Rokhl Lea Libermen did not live to see the fruits of her work. She died on 7th April 1935 and was buried in the cemetery under the name Raquel Ferber.
In many ways, Liberman and her sons were fortunate. Documents show that the widowed mother of two was filing papers to return to Poland, where — only a few years after her death — millions of Jews would fall victims to the Nazi genocide.
A plaque bearing a photograph of Liberman watches over her burial site in Avallenada. ‘Your struggle continues’, it reads.