Sally Berkovic
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Rescue the balabusta: Anti-Slavery Day 2019

Was Bertha Pappenheim never recognized for her crusade on behalf of prostitutes because she presented a threat, as a 'carefree’ single woman?
Bertha Pappenheim, 1882, at 22 years old. (From the archive of Sanatorium Bellevue, Kreuzlingen, Germany, Wikipedia)
Bertha Pappenheim, 1882, at 22 years old. (From the archive of Sanatorium Bellevue, Kreuzlingen, Germany, Wikipedia)

“I’ve been slaving in the kitchen for weeks,” she whimpered, flicking her blond sheital bangs, “I just can’t wait till yom tov is over.” Luckily for Shaindy – punkt in the middle of Succot, it’s Anti-Slavery Day in the UK, so she can rely on the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to protect her, for surely she is a person at risk of being subjected to different forms of slavery including sex trafficking, forced labour and domestic servitude.

This is not the first attempt at protecting vulnerable Jewish women – the formidable and courageous Bertha Pappenheim defended Jewish women trapped in servitude – albeit not those trapped cooking gourmet Yomtov meals for 20 guests. Her concerns were more prosaic – Jewish women tricked and trafficked into prostitution in the early 1900s. Pappenheim was born in Vienna in 1859 into an Orthodox family, and is better known as Anna O, the patient whom Josef Breuer treated between 1880 and 1882. Breuer discussed Pappenheim with his younger protégé, Sigmund Freud, who used this information to develop his nascent ideas about psychoanalysis.

During the 1890s, Bertha took an increasing interest in the emerging suffragette movement, and decried the inability of Jewish women to participate fully in religious life or pursue educational opportunities. In particular, she was deeply disturbed by the news that Jews were active in the business of white slave trafficking. Young girls were being sent abroad, often unwittingly by their parents who believed their daughters would face a better future away from the poverty and pogroms that gripped Eastern Europe. A young girls was often a victim of a stille chuppa [silent wedding] whereby she only had a ritual Jewish marriage that was not recognised by the civil authorities. After marriage, her new husband would travel ahead and then send for her shortly afterwards – but once she arrived in countries such as Turkey, Greece and South America, she discovered that her ‘husband’ was part of a network of well-organised gangs of pimps who preyed on vulnerable women. With no legal protection, money or work skills, she eventually submitted to prostitution.

In 1904, Pappenheim founded the Jüdischer Frauenbund [Jewish Women’s Association] that eventually enrolled nearly a quarter of all German-Jewish women. It established outposts at railroad depots and ports where volunteers met unaccompanied girls with offers of food, financial aid and general support – often competing with traffickers who procured destitute girls as they disembarked. However, the Frauenbund was hampered by many rabbinical leaders who refused to acknowledge the extent of the problem (although some were actively sympathetic), and the Jewish press who were reluctant to cover the issue extensively for fear of aggravating the growing anti-Semitism in Germany. In 1907, Pappenheim founded a home at Neu-Isenburg, which became the first place on the continent where ‘endangered and morally sick’ Jewish girls and unmarried mothers and their children could find acceptance and care. Although she was insistent that kashrut and Shabbat were observed, the Orthodox community were not particularly supportive as they regarded the home as tacit acceptance of prostitution.

A prolific writer, Pappenheim’s best known work is Sisyphus Arbeit (‘Sisyphus Work’), which documented the extent of Jewish prostitution she uncovered in her travels during 1911 and 1912. In her diary. she noted a visit to a hospital for venereal disease in Budapest where a third of the patients were Jewish prostitutes. In Alexandria, Greek and Jewish prostitutes dominated the market, while in one Romanian port four of the seven brothels were owned by Jews. In Constantinople, she recorded that almost all of the traffickers, and approximately ninety per cent of the prostitutes were Jewish. One rabbi in Constantinople admitted that there was a synagogue were the prostitutes donated money so that their pimps could receive the honour of saying a blessing on the Torah.

Much has been written about the nature of human trafficking in Israel and it’s not a pretty picture. One wonders what Bertha Pappenheim would have done at the turn of this century, as sex-trafficking of Jewish women by Jewish men fulfilled Bialik’s desiderata for the nascent State of Israel that ”We will be a normal state when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew policeman.” She certainly would have supported the organisations advocating for the migrant agricultural workers and personal carers and even been hopeful that The National Anti-Trafficking Unit (“NATU”) to coordinate activities between various Israeli government and non-government bodies to combat all forms of human trafficking would be effective.

Although visionary in so many ways, Pappenheim rejected Zionism partly because she was concerned that the majority of its secular leaders did not respect the religious customs and traditions of Judaism. She was angry that the Zionist movement paid scant attention to the issue of white slavery, and disapproved of what she regarded as the subordinate position of women in the Zionist movement. She was also concerned that childcare policies on the kibbutz were anti-family and negated the importance of motherhood.

Her death in May 1936 spared her the truth of the Nazi danger, and the knowledge that Neu-Isenburg, the project she held dearest, was partially destroyed on Kristallnacht in November 1938 and closed permanently in 1942. The young women were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and the remains of Neu-Isenburg were used by Hitler youth. Pappenheim’s identity as Anna O remained a secret for more than fifty years, until in 1953 Ernest Jones revealed it in his biography, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud.

Bertha Pappenheim’s psychoanalytic biographers have explained her interest in prostitution as a great act of sublimation. Little is known of any romantic or sexual relationships and it has been argued that her conflicts as a young woman arose from a wish to possess her father or become a prostitute, or both. She resolved this conflict by working on behalf of prostitutes yet it doesn’t seem fair because unlike other female icons including Sarah Schenirer and Henrietta Szold, she has not received due recognition for all her efforts. Could it be because she, of all the Orthodox single women who took on social causes, personifies the threat of the ‘carefree’ single woman and her unbridled sexuality?

It’s hard to know what Bertha would have made of today’s frum hausfrau, but she would have respected her commitment to her family and community. She also would have been pleased that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires certain organisations to develop an annual Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement, outlining the measures taken to ensure modern slavery is not taking place in their business or supply chains.

Bertha would have diligently penned a statement for Jewish businesses and those that shop within: We pledge to pay any undocumented shelf-stackers a living wage; we seek to only buy kosher bug-free vegetables from farms where agricultural workers are treated fairly, we aim ensure that those who file and paint our nails are in possession of their own passports and are not being held against their will; we offer our cleaners a regular resting period and drinks; and we commit to providing protective clothing to all those who renovate our kitchens and to those who will take down our sukkah next week.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic's latest publication, Death Duties, focusses on her involvement with the Chevra Kadisha and is available via her website. and Her book, Under My Hat is available on and in the UK, via the author. Reflecting on Orthodoxy and feminism, the 2019 edition includes a new, 75-page introductory essay reviewing the extraordinary changes in Orthodox women’s lives since Under My Hat was first published in 1997. She is the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.
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