Meet the Fokkens: Amsterdam’s septuagenarian Jewish prostitutes

Like many Jewish grandmothers, Martine and Louise Fokkens enjoy talking about their grandchildren in language laced with Yiddish.

At 71, the twins from Amsterdam also paint, think often about the Holocaust and attend synagogue on Jewish holidays.

But the Fokkens are not like most Jewish grandmothers.

For one thing, they recently retired after 50 years of working as prostitutes in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. For another, they are local celebrities thanks to several autobiographical books and a 2012 documentary carrying the English-language title “Meet the Fokkens.”

In the Netherlands, they are widely known by the Dutch title, which translates to “old whores.”

“The business taught us to get along with everybody, and I do mean everybody,” said Louise Fokkens, who retired in 2010 because of arthritis.

“Everybody” included priests, imams and rabbis, said the twins, who wore matching outfits during an interview last week at a Red Light District cafe.

“One of my Turkish clients shouted about Allah” at the moment of climax, Martine recalls.

“And we both had nice, shy yeshiva boys over more than once,” Louise added. “They’re very introverted.”

Though they speak positively about their years “behind the window” — a reference to the glass booths in which Amsterdam prostitutes attempt to lure customers — their career choice was born out of adversity and came at a price.

Louise entered the business in her early 20s under pressure from her ex-husband.

“He basically beat me into that booth, becoming my pimp, living on my money,” she said.

The couple had four children, but her ex-husband forced her to leave them for a few years at a foster home. Louise was able to visit them only on weekends.

Martine followed her sister into the trade, working first as a cleaning lady at brothels before she began turning tricks herself.

“I was angry at how everybody around us shunned Louise,” Martine said. “I did it out of spite, really.”

Both women eventually divorced their husbands, whom they now describe as “a couple of pimps.” But they continued working in the district “because that had become our lives,” Louise said.

“Our life in the business became a source of pride, a sport of sorts,” Louise added.

In retrospect, both women say they regret becoming prostitutes.

“We didn’t need all the trouble it brought us, the social stigma, the negative people you meet,” Martine said. “But that’s just how things went. Besides, we also met some wonderful people thanks to the business.”

Since retiring, the Fokkens have spent more time with their children — Martine has three — and grandchildren. They also briefly sold their paintings, including scenes of the Red Light District created at a studio near there.

They also receive psychological therapy at the Amsterdam Jewish community’s mental health clinic to deal with family traumas connected to the Holocaust.

“We were too young to experience it, but we were born into a traumatized family because our mother was half Jewish,” Louise said. “Our parents for years were expecting she’d get taken away. We also had Jews hiding in our home. The stress seeped through to us.”

Although the Fokkens’ maternal grandmother was Jewish, they were not brought up Jewish.

“But we remember her praying in the old kitchen and she taught us some Yiddish,” Martine said.

Their parents fiercely objected to their choice of career but eventually learned to live with it.

“Before us, nobody from our family ever went into the business,” Martine said. “I suppose someone had to go first.”

With age, the twins have reconnected to Jewish traditions. Louise now attends services at the Dutch capital’s Reform synagogue.

“When we were still in the business, going to shul didn’t feel right,” Louise said. “How could it? We weren’t unwelcome there, but we felt inadequate ourselves.”

Even today, Louise sits in the back row in synagogue to be as far away from the rabbi as possible.

But the sisters don’t feel excluded from Dutch Jewry. Over the summer they sailed on the Jewish boat in the Amsterdam gay pride parade. Their aim was to protest anti-Semitism, said Louise, who does not wear a Star of David pendant because she fears it would invite an attack.

“Our parents taught us to stand up straight no matter what,” Louise said.

Aboard the ship, they danced on the forward deck in white suits while the announcer touted them as “the old whores.”

But the twins themselves don’t feel like Red Light District symbols. In fact, they no longer even feel completely at home there, Louise confessed.

“The working girls used to be Dutch, now they’re all foreign,” she said. “The clients used to be local, now they’re tourists. And there used to be older girls. But now if you dare be [there] over 25, they stand in front of your window and make fun like you’re some sort of freak.”

Letters to the Editor: JCC closure, Kosher Jesus and prostitution

Effects of JCC Closure Widely Felt

Every morning I take my kids to school at The JCC at Milken. As we enter the Early Childhood Center, we are greeted by the teachers, the secretary and the director, who have become family through the years.

We are in disbelief and frustrated that this great place that we know and love will be shutting its doors to our kids, to us, to the teachers and faculty, to the seniors who have a place that cares for them (“Seniors Angry Over Plans to Close JCC,” Feb. 10). We are being sold out. 

As Jewish people we are bound to stick together, because of our past and for our future generations. We do not turn our backs and do not close doors.

Nir Shemer
via e-mail

These seniors are us. These are the people who paid the memberships, tuitions, the bills, raised the funds for the synagogues, Jewish Federation, Jewish schools as part of the Jewish community in their peak earning years. These are the people who bought the land that the sharpies are trading away. These are the older generation that is now being segregated away from the multigenerational contact that a JCC provides.  These are the seniors who provided and protected our public good all their lives and are now being deprived of it along with many other vulnerable segments of the Jewish and general community. Their slogan is written in Psalms 17: Do not abandon me in my old age.

Save the JCCs.

Pini Herman

Expand Our Embrace of Converts

I share Rob Eshman’s opinion that the Jewish future will be greatly enhanced by truly welcoming all those who feel drawn to Judaism and the timeless truth of its teachings (“The Embrace,” Feb. 10).

At my synagogue, Temple Knesset Israel of Hollywood, we are in the midst of a dramatic reinvigoration since welcoming an influx of congregants of Sephardic descent, primarily from Central America, who wished to learn and participate in our beloved Jewish rituals. Rabbi Robert Elias is currently teaching a third conversion class at our synagogue, and Shabbat attendance, not long ago less than 20, now averages over 60. The devotion of our new members is remarkable, and they have transformed our synagogue into a vibrant, diverse and certainly unique congregation.

A miracle, perhaps?

Harvey Shield, president
Temple Knesset Israel of Hollywood

You’ve written a moving and important article about embracing converts. The eyewitness account of the young boy reciting the Kiddush provides a convincing snapshot to show that when it comes to conversion, the Jewish people’s imports are better than our exports.

I hope you will write additional articles on the subject of conversion, especially about how the idea of embracing converts can become more widespread among American Jews.

Larry Epstein
via e-mail

Another View of Jesus

When Shmuley Boteach released his book “Kosher Jesus,” he expected to be throttled by the Christian community but instead was metaphorically “spat upon” by many within the Jewish community (“A Jesus Even Jews Can Love?” Feb. 10). Rather than acting like barbarians, let’s be civil and come to terms with the fact that Jesus has been one of the world’s foremost promoters of love, peace and tolerance. We may not accept him as the Son of God, but why overlook the fact that he was a religious Jewish rabbi and teacher, who, throughout his short life, relied upon, believed in and emphatically encouraged the study of Torah. What’s so bad about that?

Richard David
Culver City

Who Is the Real Criminal?

Gili Varon needs to reassess her evaluation of the criminalizing of prostitution (“Israel Must Criminalize Purchase of Sex,” Feb. 10). Perhaps if those responsible for the conditions that create the need for prostitution as a financial source for survival were held as criminals there would be no need for prostitution.

Paulette Mansfield

Jewish Summer Camp’s Benefits Are Numerous

I was mentioned in Gerald Freisleben’s article (“An Appreciation to Summers Spent in Paradise,” Jan. 27)  as one of the wonderful wives of his camp friends. As a pediatrician and specialist in adolescent behavior and emotional development, let me offer a professional translation into the truly invaluable meaning, depth of connection and enduring worth that immersion in the Jewish summer camp experience offers. Not only is camp a great place to form lifelong friendships, it is an inoculation against teenage angst and deleterious risk taking, and a remedy for current teen disillusion. Twenty-first-century teens need help learning to tolerate boredom and distress safely, and to experience social life as real human interactions and not screen versions. Camp is that place.

Sharon Pollock

Demonstrations to press Israel on prostitution

Demonstrations to put international pressure on Israeli lawmakers to criminalize the purchase of sexual services in Israel are set to be held in four major cities worldwide.

Organized by the ATZUM-Justice Works social activism organization, the protests will be held Feb. 5 outside the Israeli Embassy and Consulate buildings in New York, Washington and London, as well as the Knesset in Jerusalem.

The demonstrations are expected to show support for a bill to be voted on Feb. 12 by the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation that would levy severe punishment on consumers of sexual services in Israel.

The legislation, proposed by Orit Zuaretz of the Kadima Party, is based on laws that have been enacted in Sweden, Iceland, Norway and most recently in France. The model works on the principle that in order to effectively combat sex trafficking and prostitution, the demand for sexual services must be confronted.

“Simply put, prostitution is a form of modern slavery and must be eradicated—not just in Israel but throughout the world,” said Rabbi Levi Lauer, founding executive director of ATZUM.

“The time has come for our society to stop tolerating the purchase of sexual services. There must be real consequences in place for those who purchase sex to the great detriment of women, children and Israeli society as a whole.”

More than 15,000 individuals are estimated to be working in the prostitution industry in Israel, including 5,000 minors.

Tricked Into

Like everyone else, I used to divide the prostitutes smuggled into Israel from the former Soviet republics into two categories — the good ones who were tricked into it, and the bad ones who knew what they were getting into.

I think differently now. After meeting one of the "bad" ones for a story I’m doing, I see them all, both the knowing and unknowing, as victims, as innocents.

When I first suggested a story about the Israeli flesh trade to a foreign editor, and explained to him the two different kinds of women we were talking about, he said he wasn’t interested in "willing" prostitutes, only in regular women lured from their homes with promises of legitimate work and then forced into sexual slavery.

So I called the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which helps foreign prostitutes, and asked if they could get me an interview with someone who thought she was coming here to clean houses or something, and soon I went to Tel Aviv to meet "Natasha."

In jeans, T-shirt and sandals, she looked like any pretty 20-year-old Israeli girl, except more demure — hair tied back in a bun, little gold studs in her ears and no make-up. Nearly two years earlier she’d escaped from one of the "health clubs" near the old Central Bus Station, then went to the police and later testified against her pimp.

With her innocent face and soft voice, Natasha had a little-girl quality, but as she told her story through a translator she showed herself to be very mistrustful and cynical, understandably enough.

She first came in contact with pimps when she was 18, living in a town in Moldova with her father and stepmother. She’d studied to be a technician, but ran out of money, while her drunken, unemployed father had none and her stepmother refused to help.

"A girl I knew told me there was this man and woman who could get me work in Israel, and in six months I could make enough money to get an apartment and a car, so I went over there to see them."

I asked: When she met the man and woman, did they tell her the work was prostitution?

"They told me it was prostitution, but they didn’t tell me the conditions," she said.

At this point I wanted to go, both because Natasha wasn’t right for the story and because I didn’t want to cause her unnecessary stress — she’d been very reluctant to go through with the interview for fear that I would reveal her identity or whereabouts, which could get her killed. But I didn’t want to insult her so I continued, figuring I would at least get some background material.

She told how she and several other women were forced to hide underground in the Sinai Desert, waiting for their Bedouin smugglers to give the all-clear for the trek to the all-but-open Israeli border.

"We climbed down a ladder into a hole … like Saddam Hussein. We had buckets for toilets. It was hot, there were flies. We stayed there for three days."

After they made the three-hour walk to the border and were driven to Tel Aviv, Natasha was taken to a pimp who had her undress so he could "inspect the merchandise," and he asked her about herself. "The pimps prefer it if the women have children back home, so they’ll be more motivated to work," explained Uri Sadeh, a Hotline attorney.

The sale concluded, Natasha’s pimp told her she now owed him the $8,000 he’d paid for her, and she would work it off in his brothel near the bus station.

Giving sex to about 10 clients a day, she got to keep about $5 for each trick, while the house kept the other $30. Out of her average $50 daily wage she paid the brothel $16 for rent, about $12 for food and cigarettes and $4 for condoms.

"Sometimes the clients hit me. Sometimes one of the bosses would hit me if I said I didn’t want to do it with a client because he was drunk or he smelled," she said.

Natasha slept in the brothel. Whatever she wanted to buy was brought in to her — she wasn’t allowed to go out on her own and the whorehouse goon guarded the locked door.

She was on call 19 hours a day from 10 a.m.-5 a.m., seven days a week, and when she was on her period she used a diaphragm.

During the interview, I asked if her father had agreed for her to go to Israel.

"I didn’t tell him I was going," said said. "I didn’t say goodbye to him. Why should I?"

And her mother?

"My mother left when I was 1."

Is she in touch with her father since she left?

"I called him once, and he said he didn’t want to know about me. He said, ‘Why should I care, I don’t need you.’ He’s got a new wife now. We haven’t talked since then. He doesn’t know where I am," she said.

After four months in the brothel, a client who became Natasha’s boyfriend helped her escape. Her testimony later put her pimp away for 13 years. "Hooray, happy ending, right?" she said sarcastically.

She’s been hiding now for two years, scraping by with a menial job, alone with her history. Her plans? "To study, to work. To live like a normal human being."

Given her upbringing, did Natasha "choose" to become a prostitute? Does any girl who grows up desolate — without love, money, prospects or self-esteem — really "choose" that destiny?

On "Fight Human Trafficking Day" in the Knesset on Aug. 16, activists said about 3,000 female sex slaves are smuggled into Israel each year. They all started out as poor, bereft young girls. They all were tricked into it.