Chained Women: Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery of Jewish Women in the 20th Century

Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2020

By Lesley Urbach, René Cassin Fellow

Our team - Generation 2 Generation

At the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century Jewish European women were trafficked across international borders to be sold into sex slavery. Today, this would fall under the banner of human trafficking.

Poverty and the Promise of the ‘New World’

The Industrial Revolution (during the 1850s-1900s) saw living conditions across Europe decline, due to poverty, overcrowding, unsafe and insecure work, and the social and economic devastation that followed war and political upheaval. Eastern European men faced conscription and were forced to leave their families for war. Many were killed or disappeared, leaving their families without means of support. Those with means and ability, the majority of whom were men, left Europe to greener pastures in the ‘New World’ and brought with them an increasing demand for sex work.[1]

Antisemitism in Eastern Europe

During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, state sanctioned antisemitism left much of Eastern Europe’s Jewish communities in poverty. Antisemitism was rife in Eastern Europe: faced with Partition in Poland, Jewish people were stripped of their traditional ways of living and earning money and forced into ghettoized living in the cities. Furthermore, between the 1880s and early Twentieth Century, pogroms, deadly and violent attacks on Jewish communities, frequented the Russian Empire. Communities were destroyed, and the survivors left in poverty. Consequently, an approximate 10% (0.52 million) of Russian Jewry fled to Western Europe and the ‘New World’. Men would often leave before their wives and families, leaving women in vulnerable socio-economic positions.[2]

Jewish Women

Life for Eastern European Jewish women in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century was incredibly difficult. Women had limited employment options beyond domestic, factory, or sex work. Single, widowed and abandoned women, many living in extreme poverty and facing the very real threat of antisemitism, sought solace in the comforting words and promises of traffickers. 

Jewish women who fled Eastern Europe, to escape poverty and persecution, often found life abroad just as unbearable as their lives of poverty back home. For example, young Jewish girls often emigrated alone, to join family abroad. Many came with as little as a name or vague address of their family’s whereabouts, consequently finding themselves alone and out-of-pocket on the shores of a new country. These women were susceptible to entrapment and coercion into situations of exploitation including sex work, such as the offer of cheap lodging in brothels. This made impoverished immigrant Jewish communities, in America and London, ideal conditions for the entrapment of Jewish women. Once in sex work, women and girls found it near impossible to leave, as social, cultural and religious norms saw them as outcast from their communities.

Many of these women were subsequently trafficked into sex slavery in South America (Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro), the United States (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia), South Africa, Turkey (Constantinople),  Egypt,  England, Palestine, Russia and the Far East. 

 The ‘Modus Operandi’

As with human trafficking today, poor and vulnerable Jewish women were lured into sex slavery with the promise of a better life by criminals within their own communities. Described in an article in the Whitstable Times and Hern Bay Herald at the time: ’The modus operandi is the same in all cases. Replying to advertisements for governesses, companions, etc., the unfortunate girls are enticed into Turkish territory.  Once there, they are treated as prisoners, and compelled to submit to the most brutal and ignominious treatment’.[3]

These criminals abused customs and traditions within the Jewish community, to exploit and enslave Jewish girls and women. For example, criminals and traffickers would marry their victims under false pretenses, in small ceremonies (two witnesses and a Rabbi) and force them into sex slavery. These perpetrators would use their marriage to their victims to alienate them from their families and communities, and often refusing to give their victims a gett (divorce). Women who are refused a gett by their husbands are known as agunah (a chained women), unable to leave their husbands and remarry.  

Those involved in human trafficking used local agents to entice women with an escape from poverty. Advertisements in newspapers lured women and girls with the promise of jobs, immigration certificates, and marriage proposals. For example, one British newspaper reported on the arrest of a couple, in Bordeaux, en route to Buenos Aires, with two girls who were to be forced into working in a brothel upon arrival. The girls had been lured from their lives of extreme poverty with the promise of café jobs in Geneva.

A notorious example is the Zvi Magdalena Society, a successful Jewish Polish criminal group that trafficked women and girls to South America from poor Jewish ghettoes and villages in Poland and Russia. The group sent well-mannered and elegant-looking Jewish men to these villages who would advertise domestic work for young women, in Argentina, at the local synagogues.

Terrified about pogroms, and often extremely poor, many parents sent their daughters away with these men, hoping to give them a fresh start abroad. However, after a shtille chupah (quick wedding ceremony), and once the marriage was consummated, the women were taken to large cities and then trafficked abroad in groups: The  poor victims  are  banded together in some Prussian town, whence they are exported like other goods or chattels to Riga or Wilna(sic) in the Baltic provinces, where Russian merchants” have the pick of the market, with which to supply St.          Petersburgh and Moscow’.[4]

Upon arrival at their destination, after enduring sexual abuse and violence en route, the women were placed in brothels and badly beaten if they did not do what they were told. As with many slaves in the present day, these women were told they would have to work to repay the cost of their travel. This method of enslavement and coercion has come to be known as debt bondage.

Many different  people were involved in the various stages of the trafficking of Jewish women: tricking young women and their families; obtaining papers and tickets; arranging passage through borders; accompanying women to their destination; and running the brothels and sex trafficking rings the women were enslaved in.

Sex slavery and human trafficking was immensely profitable trade for the perpetrators.  For example, by 1900, the Zvi Magdalena Society had an annual turnover of 50 million dollars. These profits continued to soar and by the 1920s, the Society controlled 2,000 brothels with 4,000 women in Argentina alone. 

A Part of Jewish History: Victims and Perpetrators of Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery

While it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics on the number of Jewish women in the global sex work industry, at the time, it is estimated that the proportion of Jewish women in the sex industry was never greater than the proportion of Jews in the overall population.

Individual Jewish involvement in human trafficking and sex slavery was used to incense and cement the growing trend of antisemitism throughout the world. Journalist W. T. Stead often used his platform to spread antisemitic theories that Eastern European Jews were responsible for the victimization and trafficking of non-Jewish (predominantly Christian) English women and girls.

In reality, whilst there were Jewish individuals and groups involved in the trafficking and exploitation of women and girls, most of them used their knowledge and trust within their own communities to victimize Jewish women and girls.

In response to the growing wave of antisemitic rhetoric around the human trafficking and sex slavery of women, at the time, the Jewish Chronicle published the following: I am assured by those who are in the best position to estimate the part played in the traffic by Jews and non-Jews that the Jewish part is by no means a large one. What is indisputable, however, is that there are many Jewish victims of the trade-a state of things due, as we all know, to the abominable conditions of Jewish existence in certain continental countries”.[5]

Jewish views on slavery - Wikipedia
Protest against child labour in a labour parade in New York City, May 1, 1909

A Part of Jewish History: Jewish Community Response to Human Trafficking & Sex Slavery

Outraged about the involvement of Jewish individuals in the exploitation and trafficking of women and girls, Jewish communities ostracized known perpetrators. For example, perpetrators were not allowed to participate in Jewish life: go into synagogues or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (In response, the Zvi Magdalena Society set up its own synagogues and cemeteries in Argentina and Brazil).

However, whilst action against perpetrators was swift, it took longer for the communities to organize and respond to the needs of the victims. Initially in England, in the absence of Jewish community support, Jewish victims sought support from Christian missionaries for food and lodging.[6] However, after newspaper reporting exposed the suffering of Jewish victims, the Jewish community developed their own response to help these women and girls.

Human Trafficking and Slavery in the Present

It is estimated that that there are at least 40 million people trapped in modern day slavery worldwide, trafficked within or to outside their countries of origin. Suggesting little has changed since the plight of women and girls over one hundred years prior. The scourge of slavery and human trafficking must be erased.

Slavery continues to be prevalent in many sectors across the UK. The number of people identified as victims of modern slavery has been rising year on year with over 130,000 victims of slavery identified by the Home Office, however, the real number of people trapped in slavery is estimated to be much higher. Much of this manifests in trafficking in humans for forced labour and sex work.

In 2019, the UK’s largest-ever modern slavery ring was uncovered following an investigation by West Midlands Police. The criminal gang behind the ring trafficked more than 400 people, preying on ex-offenders, homeless people and other vulnerable people from Poland to the UK with the promise of gainful employment. The victims were made to live in squalor with minimal food provisions while working in poultry factories, farms and refuse centres. Some were paid just 50p per day for this backbreaking labour. Their passports were confiscated, prohibiting them from returning home, while threats of violence and coercion were used to intimidate victims into submission.


[1] Jeanne Rathbone, Lady Battersea Constance de Rothschild www.sheelanagigcomedienne.wordpress.com/2019/10/27/lady-battersea-constance-de-rothschild

[2]   Bukivek Predrag, East and South –Eastern European Jews in the 19th and 20th Centuries. 16/04/2012, http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/europe-on-the-road/jewish-migration/predrag-bukovec-east-and-south-east-european-jews-in-the-19th-and-20th-centuries

[3]   Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, 19 November, 1892 p.

[4] ‘A White Slave Trade’ Liverpool Echo, 20 March, 1885, p.3

[5] ‘Correspondence’ Jewish Chronicle 8 March, 1908

[6]  Jeanne Rathbone, Lady Battersea Constance de Rothschild www.sheelanagigcomedienne.wordpress.com/2019/10/27/lady-battersea-constance-de-rothschild