Jayson McNamara looks into the legacy of the Jewish migrant who toppled a global sex-trafficking ring in Buenos Aires almost 100 years ago.
by Jan-Paul Koopmann
A temporary art project on Marktplatz, Bremen’s old market square, shows that forced prostitution is and always has been a structural social problem.
In the twilight circa fifty people gather on the Marktplatz around a small pavilion and gaze in silence at a screen. Most of them belong in some way or other to the arts scene—they were invited to attend. Otherwise, things are pretty quiet this Friday evening: a few last-minute shoppers are hurrying in the direction of Domsheide while a rowdy wagon-convoy tour group spreads itself across the Dom [cathedral] steps.
On the screen appears a hand writing short sentences: “He said I am the prettiest of all.” This sounds like a disappointed lover and one needn’t be a cynic to imagine that a Casanova somewhere has played a girl a dirty trick.
In reality, it is much worse than that. In this project initiated by the artist Elianna Renner and students at Bremen University of the Arts, the focus is on human traffickers who ensnare young women and girls from impoverished provincial backwaters and force them into prostitution. All the historical letters [from which the screened quotes derive] are authentic but the texts are intercut with [excerpts from] reports made by women and girls caught up in forced prostitution today. Renner’s long-term project “Tracking the Traffic” aims to compile an aesthetic inventory of these involuntary migration histories—based in the main on the fates of the Jewish women and girls among the countless females abducted in Eastern Europe since the 1860s.
The suffering sketched in the letters is increasingly dramatic: reports of beatings and food deprivation as a punishment for tears. By now at the very latest it is clear that this is about not some broken-hearted love affair but concrete injustice. And when the same letters are projected, time after time, certain spontaneous viewers smell political agitation and quietly slink away.
Not that anyone here is collecting signatures or donations. Nor are there any slogans one might join in chanting. Nor, incidentally, any maps, figures or other endeavors to convey the true dimension of the trade in human beings. There are only these short, relatively harmless sentences: “He promised my parents he’d look after me.”
This happening on the market square marks the start of a series of events with the name Ordnung//Struktur [Order//Structure], which is presented by the women’s culture lab “thealit” (www.thealit) The title of the present piece “27.02. Marktplatz” can be read as coordinates: time and place as a means of pinning down social structures. Back then, the global presence of seamen and colonial armies created a market for European girls.
Today the market is definitively globalized and human cargos are dispatched all over the world. The market square here is more than just a symbol of this trade in goods—for Bremen was historically a hub for the thousands of women and girls from Eastern Europe who ventured to make their way in the New World.
Meanwhile a male voice can be heard through a loudspeaker, calmly and soberly recounting the dreadful deeds of a ring of traffickers specialized in trading girls. This is a lecture originally given in the early twentieth century by the Rabbi Leopold Rosenak, who used to warn people of the traffickers and their tricks. One could easily think the text had been written today, were it not for its old-fashioned turn of phrase—when Rosenak speaks, for example, of girls who “would have to keep face with a blush.” The Rabbi was active far beyond Bremen, on behalf of East European migrants in general, and women travelling solo in particular.
As a finale, ten figures in bridal wear slip out of the small crowd and gather in front of the screen. On their backs they wear the message behind this half-hour happening: “Demand determines supply.” It was with these words that the American crisis-economist John Maynard Keynes turned the classic principles of economics upside down. Yet while he was plagued by the question as to how the state might best reflate the market, the issue here is guilt—and yet if ever the international trade in girls were to grind to a halt due to a lack of demand, the issue here would be rejoicing.