Jewish Pimps and Prostitutes in ‘The Third Daughter’
The Third Daughter: A Novel By Talia Carner (William Morrow Paperbacks, 399 pp. $15.99)
Set mostly in Argentina around the turn of the 19th century, Talia Carner’s complex historical fiction, The Third Daughter, exposes the cruelty of Zwi Migdal, a notorious association of Jewish men involved in the exploitation of women and children. Indeed, Zwi Migdal was a real-life organization of unionized pimps in Argentina that trafficked between 150,000 and 220,000 Jewish girls and women, mostly from Russia and Poland, where it was founded.
Amid a period of pogroms in czarist Russia, the novel’s fiendish Reb Markowitz deceives the desperate and impoverished father of 14-year-old Batya with a promise of matrimony and wealth abroad. The girl is spirited away to Argentina, where prostitution is legal, and sold into a brothel that is controlled by a ruthless Jewish woman. Confoundingly, the tyrannical matron allows her charges to bless Shabbat candles and even arranges a Passover seder.
On her website, Carner cites Sholem Aleichem’s short story “The Man From Buenos Aires”—one of many that featured Tevye the Dairyman—as her inspiration. It is no surprise, then, that her resourceful heroine, Batya, is the third daughter of a dairyman. One of Batya’s older sisters has married a socialist and is exiled to Siberia (a la Hodel, one of the daughters in the Tevye stories, popularized in Fiddler on the Roof), while the other has married a goy—a word widely and uncomfortably used throughout the narrative—and is considered dead to her family (a la Chava). Here, all similarity to Sholem Aleichem ends. The Yiddish author never used explicit descriptions of the brutal violence and graphic sex that Carner employs in her tale of Batya’s heroic determination to rescue her family from dire poverty and deadly pogroms.
Over the years, Batya endures privation, sadomasochistic violation and humiliation. Rejected by the Buenos Aires Jewish community, she forms bonds of friendship with her sister sex slaves. Ultimately, she becomes a talented tango dancer and allies herself with Sergio Rosenberg, a representative of financier-philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, in an unsuccessful effort to expose the Zwi Migdal network.
The Third Daughter has an improbable conclusion, yet this fictional exploration of a little-known, ugly chapter of Jewish history is a valuable contribution to our understanding of a difficult era.
Gloria Goldreich’s latest books are After Melanie and The Guests of August, both published by Severn.