Jewish Red Light District
By Marc Raizman
The year was 1939 and I was 13. World War II was unfolding, but in Brazil, far from the upcoming European carnage, my immediate concern was a rumor circulating that São Paulo's downtown red-light district, the so-called "zona," was to be relocated to Bom Retiro, our Jewish neighborhood.
Worse yet, the rumor was that our very street, where we lived and where my parents owned a printing shop, was to become the main street for brothels. Our combined shop and residence was at the corner of the two streets chosen as the locale for the new prostitution area. They were rua (street) Aimorés and rua Itaboca. For a print shop, ours was an excellent location, half-a-block from Rua José Paulino, the main commercial street of the area.
It wasn't clear who was responsible for the decision to move the long-existing red-light district, which was one block off São Paulo's then major commercial street, Avenida São João. Impetus for the relocation decision probably came from area merchants, restaurateurs, and movie house managers who felt that the proximity of brothels discouraged many, especially families, from coming into their establishments. The city's red-light district was boisterous, rowdy and disorderly. Fights, screaming, shootings, loud music and an occasional murder or suicide generally spilled onto São João.
There were those who believe the City Police has a hand in the affair. It was generally known that policemen were often pimps for the women of the "zona."
But one could not overlook the role of the appointed state governor, Ademar de Barros. The relocation took place during the Vargas fascist dictatorship and the appointed De Barros was a direct extension of this dictatorship. In a dictatorship, subordinated are fearful of making decisions, and even the simplest requests end up in the president's hands. In this case, the hands of Getulio Vargas. There was a well-published case in which a movie theater in the country's interior wanted to expand, and the petition for doing so finally reached Mr. Vargas for his approval. How could it be that a decision to relocate São Paulo's red-light district followed a different path?
In later years, when Ademar de Barros was running for state governor in an open democratic contest and needed the Jewish vote, he denied participating in the decision. Mr. De Barros was known to the electorate as "one who steals but gets things done."
In the early days of World War II, the Vargas government sided with the Axis Powers because it believed they would eventually win the struggle. Brazilian fascists and Nazi sympathizers were prominent in the government, and that included the chief of the federal police. To my Dad, the whole relocation affair reeked of Anti-Semitism.
I heard about the disconcerting rumors from my Dad who called me aside and told me what he had learned. Young as I was, even I could understand why the authorities had chosen the particular confluence of our two streets as the place for the soon-to-be the new zona. While Bom Retiro neighborhood was not close to downtown São Paulo, it was easily reached by streetcars from various parts of the city. The two streets offered limited access. They were tucked in a corner of our neighborhood that backed up to a 50-foot windowless stonewall of a coffee and cotton export warehouse. Beyond the warehouse but unseen from the street were the tracks of the Paulista railway. This line connected São Paulo, which sat on a high plateau, to the port of Santos below. Santos is the main Brazilian port for exports and imports.
The neighborhood had little or no traffic. In fact, we kids played soccer in the street and we never had to stop a game to let a vehicle go by. Modest single homes was what one found in the area.
At the time of these events, I was attending the equivalent of junior high school. After school and after I had done my homework, I worked in the print shop. My parents never asked me to do so, but I volunteered to help because I knew that our economic situation was precarious. I cut paper to required size for printing. I set type. I collated multi-colored invoices. I ran printing machines, especially the rotary press that could print full size sheet of paper at the time. I fed this monster, often working late into the night because the job was due for delivery next morning.
When my father confided the rumor to me, he expressed the hope that if we, the area residents, stuck together and refused to move, the authorities would not prevail in their attempt to install the brothels. But he was also realistic, knowing that a number of our neighbors would not be able to resist a little cash as "key money" to relinquish their homes and move away. The neighborhood was 70 percent Jewish, with a sprinkling of other nationalities, including a few Brazilians.
Dad was on target in evaluating what might happen. The interlopers were able to establish a beachhead by gaining control of one house in the middle of Aimores street.
This was occupied by a poor Italian shoe repairer. His house had four rooms, two of which he rented out, all opening into a courtyard with a metal gate that closed it from the street. The shoemaker apparently took the money and moved away. Obviously, he wasn't as attached to the area as we Jews were. This was our ghetto, our enclave, our commercial center.
Once the shoemaker's house changed hands, the carnival began. Whoever was in charge of the relocation immediately installed there the most indecent, most obnoxious, noisiest, lowest denizens of the brothels. Although not a word about the relocation has been published or broadcast in a dictatorship it is easy to tell newspapers what not to publish every one in the city of then 1.2 million inhabitants knew what was happening. Hundreds of Paulistanos, which is what São Paulo residents call themselves, showed up daily in front of the shoemaker's house in the middle of our street. I remember streetcars loaded with passengers coming down rua José Paulino which suddenly emptied and the crowd would make their way to our street and the particular house. In doing so, they had to pass by our print shop and home.
At night, the traffic was continuous. It seemed that anyone who owned an auto in the city had decided to drive down our street and observe the proceedings.
My brother and I shared a bedroom with a door to the street that was always locked. This outer door had a glass transom, and every time an auto turned into Aimores, its headlights flooded our room. Under these conditions it was often hard to fall asleep.
As Dad had foreseen, our neighbors in the immediate vicinity of the shoemaker's house gave up the good fight. The crowds were overwhelming, the music loud, and it was all meant to upset the neighborhood residents. So, like falling dominoes, one house after another changed hands.
At first, I had no idea what "madams" were. As more houses became available, the madams began showing up in groups to look over the available properties. My parents' print shop was of special interest because of its strategic location and because it offered a large working area. Most of the other homes were simply collections of small rooms. Because I spoke and understood Yiddish, I became aware that the madams walking down the street spoke Yiddish among themselves. Ignorant Brazilians assumed they were speaking French.
Dad told me that he could tell from the madams' Yiddish which part of Eastern Europe they had come from. The experience of hearing Yiddish spoken under these conditions rattled me and I pressed my Dad for an explanation. What he told me was heart rending. I couldn't make up my mind whether to loath these women or feel sorry for them and the conditions that caused to be what they had become. Following pogroms in Eastern Europe, many young women found themselves orphaned and lacking formal education or skills. These women became easy prays to those engaged in White Slavery, which is a polite way of saying prostitution.
When it came time to relinquish our print shop and home, my father set one condition, although I do not know why he believed he had the power to make such a demand. We were renters after all and absentee non-Jewish owner lived elsewhere in the city. Dad's condition: He would release the property to the highest bidder only if he or she agreed to use it for a coffeehouse and bar, but not a brothel.
In 1945, I left São Paulo to attend university in another Brazilian city. Shortly thereafter, my parents closed their printing shop and the family emigrated to the United States.
The Bom Retiro brothels were disbanded in 1954. Some say that under pressure from the Jewish community, the police forced the women to move elsewhere. As these homes emptied, newly arrived South Koreans needing places from which to start their ready-to-wear businesses moved in. In the year 2000, friends reported that on rua Aimores, which is only 2,400 feet long (750 feet), there were at least 30 Korean owned clothing retail operations. The influx of Koreans changed the character of the old neighborhood. It is no longer a Jewish "ghetto" as in the past. Many Bom Retiro Jewish businessmen have prospered and moved to the tonier sections of the city.
A year ago I was in São Paulo on business and I was saddened to learn that young Jewish men and women I met had never heard about the red-light district that had been forced down the throats of the Jewish community. Nor did they know about the Jewish involvement in early 20th century white slave trade.
One young Jewish Brazilian woman, now living in the United States, was upset when I recounted this story and she phoned her father in Brazil to berate him for not telling her "the truth." Her father, formerly a rainwear manufacturer and now a financier, was once a leading merchant on rua José Paulino during these troubling years of my youth.
Marc Raizman, retired, lives in Colorado, USA
from the October 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine