Not only does Argentine-born filmmaker Gabriela Böhm not see anything wrong with airing the dirty laundry in public, she considers it her mission.
In her last film, “The Longing” (2007), Böhm followed a group of South Americans in Ecuador and Colombia whose ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition, as they set out to convert back to Judaism. In the process, the film reveals a rather ugly side-story of Jews turning their backs on other Jews - in this case, members of the local, largely Ashkenazi, Jewish communities who refused to accept the so-called “anusim” back into their midst.
In her previous, more personal film, “Passages” (2000), Böhm set out to discover, while pregnant with her first child, the horrors her parents had endured during the Holocaust and in so doing to make sense of another terrible family secret, her father’s eventual suicide, before bringing new life into the world.
Her latest film, “In Raquel’s Footsteps,” shines a spotlight on yet another unsavory chapter in South American Jewish history: the sex-trafficking during the late 19th and early 20th century, when thousands of young Jewish women from Eastern Europe were forced into prostitution in South America, primarily in Argentina but also in Brazil and Uruguay.
The 30-minute documentary is scheduled for release next month. Böhm is now wrapping up the final edits, having just completed a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to finance post-production work.
“My feeling is that Jewish people are people like any people, and we have everything in our people,” says Böhm, 48, who runs her own film production company out of Los Angeles. After a several-year detour in Israel and then New York, where she studied film, Böhm eventually settled in the West Coast of the United States. “For me there is a need to bring up secrets and uncomfortable chapters in Jewish history in order to move ahead.”
So successful has the Jewish community of South America been in sweeping this sore subject under the rug, says Böhm, that to this day the typical response to the topic of her latest film project is pure disbelief. “’What, there were Jews in sex trafficking?’ people ask me. ‘It can’t be possible.’”
For several decades around the turn of the last century, a gang of Jewish mobsters, known as the Zwi Migdal, headquartered in Argentina and operating under the guise of a mutual-aid association, dispatched envoys to the poor shtetls of Eastern Europe to ensnare young Jewish women, often under the false pretense of marriage, and sell them into prostitution after they made the journey across the ocean. Thousands of miles from their families and with no means of support, these women were trapped for life.
“Once I decided to make the film, I knew that the best way to tell this story was through one strong character, someone who stood up,” recalls Böhm, “and that character became Raquel Liberman, the woman who eventually broke the silence.”
Liberman’s story, however, was not typical. Born in Ukraine in 1900, she followed her husband to Warsaw and eventually, with their two children in tow, to Buenos Aires. He went on ahead of them in order to pave the way to a better life. But after the family was finally reunited, two years later, her husband contracted tuberculosis. He died a year later. Liberman, then in her early 20s, was on her own in a strange land with two young children to feed. The Zwi Migdal pimps eventually got their hands on the young widow.
But after a few miserable years of selling her body for food, in a state of total despair, Liberman decided to do what was then considered unthinkable: She went to the police. Her act of defiance sparked a widespread backlash against the mobsters, supported by the Jewish community leadership, that in the early 1930s put an end to the Jewish sex trafficking industry.
Once she was freed Liberman began to apply for a visa to return to Poland. She died in 1935, though, while still in Argentina, of thyroid cancer, never realizing her dream of returning to a country where she would also most likely have met certain death within a few years.
In the course of her research Böhm discovered that the Zwi Migdal mobsters became so ostracized in their respective Jewish communities that they were banned from burial in the main Jewish cemeteries. Paradoxically, they were forced to share special segregated cemeteries with another group of community outcasts: the Jewish prostitutes they brought to South America.
“To this day, it’s difficult to get into these cemeteries,” Böhm says. “People just don’t want you stirring the pot. I had to invent some story of visiting the grave of someone I knew in order to get permission to go inside.” Although she has searched around Argentina, Böhm has yet to discover Liberman’s final resting place.
For her research Böhm relied heavily on a number of books, including two in English: “The Jewish White Slave Trade and the Untold Story of Raquel Liberman” (2000) by Nora Glickman and “Bodies and Souls: The Trafficking of Jewish Immigrant Prostitutes in the Americas” (2005) by Isabel Vincent.
“In Raquel’s Footsteps” incorporates old photos, recently discovered letters written by the heroine to her husband, interviews with experts and several reenactments designed to illustrate what life was like for these young Jewish prostitutes in South America.
Neither of Liberman’s two sons ever learned of their mother’s engagement in prostitution, according to Böhm, since they lived with another family during that period of her life. Several years ago, when a photo of Liberman appeared on television as part of a special program on the Zwi Migdal, a daughter of one of her sons, Raquel Ferber de Romeo, was shocked to recognize her grandmother’s face and subsequently contacted one of the panelists to find out more about Liberman’s past. The granddaughter, however, refused to be interviewed for the film.
Connecting audiences to a relatively little-known character who is long dead presents unique challenges, acknowledges Böhm. “But I’m a visual storyteller, and I enjoy the challenge of bringing a story like this to life,” she says.
If not her heroine, then at least her heroine’s story will live on, Böhm hopes, and inspire some of the millions of victims of sex trafficking today to take a stand as Liberman did.