1900 – 1935
Raquel Liberman was born in Berdichev in the Ukraine on July 10, 1900. As a child, she emigrated with her family to Warsaw. On December 21, 1919 she married Yaacov Ferber, a tailor, in Warsaw, according to the Jewish rite. In l920 their first son, Joshua David Ferber, was born. A year later, while she was pregnant with her second child, Yaacov Ferber emigrated to Argentina alone, joining his married sister and brother-in-law in the small village of Tapalqué, in the province of Buenos Aires. By the time Raquel Ferber and her sons Joshua and Moshe Velvele (Mauricio) joined him in Buenos Aires on October 22, 1922, Yaacov was already suffering from tuberculosis. He died a few months later. In order to support her family and with no knowledge of Spanish, Raquel, aged twenty-three, found herself obliged to leave her children in her provincial village, under the care of trusted neighbors, and find work in the capital. Unable to makes ends meet from her work as a seamstress, she was either forced into or voluntarily entered prostitution. Facts and fiction about her actual dealings are blurred. What is undisputed, however, is that after a few years of practicing that trade, she tried unsuccessfully to leave it. After a second attempt she succeeded in publicly denouncing the Zwi Migdal, formerly called Varsovia, a Jewish organization named after its founder, Zwi Migdal, which engaged in the white slave trade.
A close examination of Raquel Liberman’s recently discovered personal letters, photos and documents gives clear proof that she told the public only part of the truth about herself, deliberately choosing to keep her life from 1924 to 1928 in obscurity. She succeeded in concealing her legal marriage in Poland and the birth of her children from both the Zwi Migdal and the police. In her 1929 declaration she stated that her identity card indicated that her marital status when she immigrated to Buenos Aires in 1924 was that of a single woman. She also stated that she had been forced into prostitution and that she had been accompanied by a certain Bronya Coyman. Coyman turned out to be the traffickers’ agent who led her to her first exploiter, Jaime Cissinger. Furthermore, Raquel Liberman stated that after working for four years as a prostitute she managed to pay for her freedom and that, although she opened an antique shop and became independent, she continued to suffer pressure from the traffickers.
Unlike other victims of exploitation, Raquel Liberman was allowed to pay her “caftan,” Jaime Cissinger, a percentage of her earnings in exchange for his protection. But she managed to put away enough money to buy her own freedom and arranged for her rescue with the help of a compatriot. With her savings she opened an antique shop in Buenos Aires. But when the organization realized her ruse, they sent an intermediary, Mauricio Kirstein, to force her back with physical threats. At this point Liberman issued her first denunciation to the police, on December 29, 1929. As the first ploy of the Zwi Migdal had failed, they lured her with a marriage proposal. Liberman fell for it, and married José Salomón Korn in a Jewish ceremony, ignorant of the fact that the synagogue at 3280 Cordoba Street was false and the ten witnesses at the wedding all members of the Zwi Migdal, so that her marriage was a farce. The honeymoon turned out to be very short, since she soon realized that she had been deceived and that her new husband was a notorious pimp. Besides taking away her belongings, Korn forced his “wife” to resettle in another brothel in Buenos Aires. Looking for help, Raquel approached Simon Brutkievich to intercede in her favor, not knowing that he was president of the Zwi Migdal. Brutkievich proposed compensating her by returning part of her stolen money and jewels on condition that she cancel her denunciation to the police. But rather than give in, Liberman stayed firm in her action.
Having failed in her attempts to gain her freedom and dispossessed of all her belongings, Liberman once again became a victim of the traffickers. In order that she not lose her authorization to return to prostitution, the procurers’ syndicate sent her papers to the court, declaring that Liberman was living a double life, “given to prostitution in her country of origin, and that she continued practicing it professionally since her arrival in Buenos Aires without interrupting the obligatory visits to the Municipal Health Office when she set up her business.”
On December 31, l929, after her failure to recover her money from the Zwi Migdal, Liberman sought the help of Ezrat Nashim, the Society for the Protection of Girls and Women. She endured further slavery before managing to submit another denunciation to Chief Police Inspector Julio Alsogaray, who was investigating the Zwi Migdal for crimes of corruption, extortion and blackmail and had been attempting for years to act against this criminal organization. For their part, to purge the “impure” elements (the “teme’im”) from their midst, the Jewish institutions openly confronted the traffickers. The campaign they mounted against them consisted mostly of expelling them from their community, preventing them from entering their synagogues and from burying their dead in Jewish cemeteries.
In 1930, when the civil government of Hypólito Yrigoyen (1852–1933) fell as a result of the military coup d’état of General Uriburu, the time was ripe for a judge, Manuel Rodriguez Ocampo, to raid the headquarters of the Zwi Migdal, seize its documents, order the closure of dozens of brothels, the conviction and deportation of numerous pimps and madams, and finally dismantle the organization with the capture of many members of the Migdal. However, out of the 434 active members who were brought to trial, only l08 were convicted of minor crimes.
The newspapers of the time displayed large front page headlines. Prostitution was banned in Argentina in 1935. As a result of Liberman’s courageous action, the papers published detailed lists of the names of the traffickers and madams that operated the Zwi Migdal. Raquel Liberman thus became a symbol for the struggle of victimized women to obtain freedom from exploitation. In literature, her example inspired the semi-fictional works of Humberto Costantini (1924–1987), Carlos Serrano, Myrtha Shalom and Nora Glickman.
Raquel Liberman died of thyroid cancer on April 7, 1935.
Alsogaray, Julio. Trilogía de la trata de blancas: Rufianes-Policía-Municipalidad. Buenos Aires: 1933; Arlt, Roberto. “Que no quede en agua de borraja.” Diario Crítica, Mayo 23, 1930; Bra, Gerardo. La organización negra: la increíble historia de la Zwi Migdal. Buenos Aires: 1982; Bristow, Edward. Prostitution and Prejudice. New York: 1986; Glickman, Nora. The Jewish White Slave Trade and the True Story of Raquel Liberman. New York: 2000.