Between 1860 and 1939, thousands of poor young women
from Eastern European shtetls were sold into sexual slavery
by the Jewish-run Zwi Migdal crime syndicate which controlled
highly profitable brothels in Brazil, Argentina and the U.S.
How to pry open the iris of footnote.
As they stooped around rickety tables
on dirt floors they imagined an orange
a day and gold capped teeth. So peasant
girls with milky skin and luscious hair
left their hardscrabble shtetls sleeved
in promise from so many visiting Prince
Charmings in patent-leather shoes,
tailored trousers, and silk handkerchiefs
soaked in rose water to temper poverty’s stench.
By ship or train, the new air of a new world
was double-dealing, empty of marriage,
seamstress careers, or taffeta finery. Instead
the air was burdened with fear and sadness,
immigrant streets of trapped women in the many
“convents” of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, or
New York’s Lower East Side. Yoked by greedy
pimps to another kind of assembly line with rape
the often tool of the trade, each Eve did
their bidding, merchandise of the counterfeit kind.
And so the bruised skin of days and nights
began—the who’s your daddy in a labyrinth
of rooms with flimsy plywood partitions
in dilapidated clapboard brothels, to feel
the not feeling of pressure at their napes,
stale breath of sugarcane alcohol, rough
hands to paw their breasts, pry open
their thighs, the insignificance of release.
These transplanted sisters forced and entered,
counted and discounted, dank scent of lavender
struggling to find their no’s.
Forged letters back home to Odessa,
Lodz, Krakow, Kiev. I’m afraid your daughter
is lost forever. She’s a woman who belongs
to everybody now. Yiddish rhymes from childhood
whispered to soothe their cheap camisoled sleep.
The spit at their heels, hushed children crossing
cobblestones when their red lipsticked, heavily rouged,
high-heeled clicks came by. These colonized flower buds
that rotted in shame and syphilis, beatings and stabbings,
yellow fever, tuberculosis, or the exhausted swallow
of carbolic acid.
How to heal the script for these women of footnote long gone—
the Bruchas, Rebeccas, Sophias, and Rosas, the Klaras, Olgas,
Lenas and Helenas, the Berthas, Isabels, Rachels, and Fannys.
Today, we perform your tahara cleansing your bodies with
cascades of sacred water to comfort and purify you at last.
Rikki Santer’s poetry has been published widely and has received many honors including several Pushcart and Ohioana book award nominations, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in 2023 she was named Ohio Poet of the Year. She is currently serving as vice-president of the Ohio Poetry Association and is a member of the teaching artist roster of the Ohio Arts Council. Her twelfth poetry collection, Resurrection Letter: Leonora, Her Tarot, and Me, is a sequence in tribute to the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Please contact her through her website, https://rikkisanter.com.