The diaspora of the Jews has scattered them across the world to more unlikely destinations than one could list. But few seem as outlandish as the small town set in the oceanic reaches of the Argentine pampas called Moises Ville. This sun-blasted place is named for the putative author of the first five books of the Bible (Torah) who led his people out of captivity in Egypt and, after much distress and suffering, to a promised land.
Moises Ville, reached today off a main artery through Santa Fe Province, across ten miles of pitted gravel road, also held a promise. It, too, was fulfilled only after terrible sacrifice. Jewish people fled there from 19th-century pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. They built a new life. They raised crops and cattle on large expanses of land, a type of work and environment for which their confined shtetl lives had hardly prepared them. They were pioneers, in more ways than one.
First, they helped populate an empty country: Argentina, with more than a million square miles of territory, had only three million people in 1890. They created a small Jewish entity in that sea of grass. Others also came to settle: French, Italian, Welsh, even German colonists. All were admitted under a law designed to encourage immigration. President Julio A. Roca, in 1881, specifically invited the Jews.
Secondly, the arrival to Argentina in 1889 of the founders of Moises Ville, preceded by almost a decade the emergence of the movement that was to encourage the modern exodus of the Jews from Europe, Political Zionism, founded by Theodore Herzl. In an historical sense their journey could be seen as an incipient reflex of that movement.
Herzl was a Jewish journalist and lawyer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, born in Budapest in 1860. For much of his life he believed the best course for the Jews was assimilation into European society. He was disabused of that belief while covering the 1894 trial in Paris of Dr. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army accused as a German spy. Herzl perceived that Dreyfus was not being tried for being a spy, but for being a Jew. From this he drew three conclusions: first, that anti-Semitism was embedded so deeply in the old continent that accommodation to a dominant Christianity was impossible; second, that the Jews must have their own state to survive as a people; third, that the matter of its location would have to be decided in collaboration with the great powers. He would put the “Jewish Question” before the attention of the world, and keep it there.
Herzl didn’t create Zionism. Rather, he took the never-ending longing among many Jews for a return to Palestine and shaped it to meet the geopolitical circumstances of his times. In 1897, the first congress of the World Zionist Organization, with Herzl its president, declared that “Zionism strives to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine . . . .” But the Ottoman Turks, who ruled that territory, though they would admit immigrants, refused anything resembling an autonomous Jewish entity. For a while Herzl and a minority of his colleagues considered other sites, such as a 1903 offer from Britain of 6,000 square miles of land in Uganda to build their state. But such alternatives remained unacceptable to the majority.
Having had little experience with the raw edge of anti-Semitism, Herzl did not appreciate the deep affection for the Biblical homeland among Jews, especially those in Russia, and Eastern Europe. There, Jews were confined to certain territories by law. Violence and discrimination against them was frequent and lethal. They dreamed endlessly of old Jerusalem. But they dreamed perhaps more urgently of escape. When given the opportunity, they fled.
One of the facilitators of this earlier emigration was a Munich-born Jewish entrepreneur and philanthropist named Baron Maurice de Hirsch, who made a fortune by building the first railroad from Europe through the Balkans to Constantinople. Hirsch’s role in the modern history of the Jews was significant, though overshadowed by the charismatic Herzl. Hirsch was not utterly committed to the idea of a Jewish state, in Uganda, Palestine, or wherever.
Herzl once visited Hirsch in his Paris mansion to ask his support. He was 35, nervous and overbearing. He berated Hirsch for what he regarded as his paternalistic approach to his co-religionists. Jews needed their own state to protect themselves, Herzl insisted, to fulfill their ancient destiny.
But what Herzl brusquely dismissed as paternalism, Hirsch regarded as pragmatism. His approach to the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe, especially its violent manifestations in the East, was to buy or negotiate his people’s freedom where and whenever he could. He believed Jews, given the opportunity, and in the right place, could live as first-class citizens in another nation and continue to practice their religion unhindered. He encouraged them to undertake the cultivation of the land, not always open to them in Europe. He created a fund in the United States to teach new trades to Jewish immigrants there.
Hirsch financed the flight of Jews to politically free countries, lands absent the undying hatreds of Europe, countries with open territory and governments willing to receive colonists. He purchased huge tracts of land in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. In 1891 he created the Jewish Colonization Society to administer these resettlements. It was one of the largest charities in the world in its day.
The meeting in Paris between the two men ended inconclusively. Herzl, who had given up on assimilation, and Hirsch, the continuing believer, went their separate ways.
The people who founded Moises Ville were an intact congregation from a place called Podolia, sometimes in Russia, sometimes in Poland and Ukraine. Their religious leader, Rabbi Aaron Goldman, was a Hebrew scholar determined to keep the archaic language of Judaism alive. The immigrants spoke only Yiddish. They arrived in Argentina, 136 families, 824 people, on the German steamship Wesser on Aug.14, 1889.
These people had contracted for land in Buenos Aires Province, but for reasons lost to history, it was not available when they arrived. With the help of Jews already in Buenos Aires (about 1,500 of them, mostly French, English, and German), they were dispatched by train far to the north to a place called Palacios, in Santa Fe Province. It was little more than a few buildings named for the owner of all the land in the vicinity. According to their contract with Pedro Palacios, the colonists were to be transported to their tracts, given farm implements, livestock, food to survive until their first harvest, and instruction on how to work the land. They would pay for the land with their crops.
When they arrived, nobody was there to receive them. Their cars were shunted onto a siding. They were left. They could not communicate with the few railroad employees or the occasional gaucho who rode by. The food, the little available, was foreign to them. They had never seen such a place. There were no roads, no houses, not even a path leading off into the open space. Desperate, they took to begging at the train station. A few of the men got jobs laboring on nearby estancias. Entire families drifted away to the little towns of the south, or even to Buenos Aires.
Moises Ville did not just begin inauspiciously. It began with a tragedy greater than any the colony was to experience in all its subsequent years. During that first year, 1889, some 60 children died of illnesses and deprivations. The people, living in squalor, had no medical care, no medicines. An epidemic, probably typhus, carried many of them away. Bad water, bad food, exhaustion, the biting winds and cold, lack of shelter, all contributed to this disaster.
The names of many of these children are unrecorded in Moises Ville, which as a community has been assiduous in putting down its history. Even their actual number is uncertain, from 60 to 80, depending on to whom you talk. They are interred in scores of graves in the oldest part of the town cemetery. Their stones are tilted this way and that by the settling of the earth over the years. They died between August and October, 1889.
The colony of Moises Ville would not have taken root had it not been for the providential arrival of an Austrian doctor named George Loewenthal. He was a hygienist from the University of Berlin hired to survey the new agricultural colonies for the Argentine government. On his return from a trip through northern Argentina, as his train rolled into the station at Palacios, he saw the wretched souls sprawled outside, the scrawny children, the begging hands come forth. Then he heard a language he hadn’t heard for years: Yiddish. Someone had arrived who could understand the immigrants’ story.
Moved by indignation and compassion, Loewenthal appealed to the Argentine Government and the governor of Santa Fe Province. Tents were dispatched, and food. He went to see Pedro Palacious and demanded that he fulfill his contract. All this had the desired effect. The colonists were moved by wagon some ten miles to the east, where the town was laid out. Livestock was brought, tools. Palacios sent men to teach the techniques of husbandry. Two Italian families with estancias in the area scoured a path with a harrow from the train station across the pampas to the site. It was the first road into Moises Ville.
When the time came to dedicate the new town, only 50 of the 136 families from the Wesser remained. At the ceremonies, Don Pedro Palacios asked Rabbi Goldman why the colonists had chosen the name Moises Ville.
“Moses took the Jews out of the penury in Egypt, and conducted them toward their own country,” he said. “We, too, after having left Czarist Russia and arrived to a free Argentina, feel the same as our far off ancestors, in this place that will be our country.”
Loewenthal returned to Europe to solicit funds so the colonists might buy their lands outright, and be free of the sharecropper arrangement they had with Palacios. He met Baron de Hirsch, who embraced the idea. To facilitate this new philanthropy Hirsch established the colonization society in 1891 as a legal entity in London, New York, and Buenos Aires. He sent Loewenthal back to Argentina with money to buy land all over the country. Before long the society had acquired more than a million acres, in Entre Rios, Santiago del Estero, La Pampa, Buenos Aires Province and Santa Fe, where Moises Ville was struggling through its second year, having survived the duplicity of Pedro Palacios, droughts, floods, plagues of locusts of Biblical proportions, and the ineptitude that hinders all inexperienced farmers and ranchers.
Hirsch was determined to help these pioneers. He bought the land and offered it to them on better terms. But before he did that, and because Don Pedro had raised the price of the property, he asked the people of Moises Ville to move to other land, less expensive but just as good.
“The people refused,” said Eva Rosenthal, a descendant of one of the original colonists, and a curator of Moises Ville’s unique museum. “They refused to leave because their roots were already deep in Moises Ville.”
She was referring to the dead children.
This is why Virginia Notkovich, whose grandfather came to Argentina as a child from Russia, and who moved to Moises Ville about ten years ago after her husband died, could say, “The history of Moises Ville began in the cemetery.”
To understand Moises Ville, it is still the best place to begin.
The oldest Jewish cemetery in Argentina spreads out beneath the beating sun behind a whitewashed wall just outside the town. It is shaded here and there by a few dusty Tuscan-like cypress. Most of the tombs are raised about three feet above the ground. They are made of cement, though a few are of marble. They are close to each other. Gray weeds grow in the shadows between them, and dry, pale green lichen crawls up the stones, especially in the older part of the cemetery where the children’s graves are. In that part, also, most graves are inscribed in Hebrew. The more recent are inscribed in Spanish. Nearly all are decorated with Jewish funereal symbolism: an engraving of two hands joined at the finger tips, a severed tree trunk. Many also bear the six-pointed star, and little round photographs behind thick glass of the people interred. Some of these pictures are painted, giving the deceased a rouged look.
“Jews don’t visit cemeteries if they are very religious,” says Virginia, though some in Moises Ville do, as evidenced by the small stones set on top of the graves, a sign of their brief presence. “The people here are mostly traditional Jews,” which is her word to describe the degree of their acceptance of the stringencies of their religion.
“We celebrate the Jewish holidays, the Day of Atonement, the New Year. But we generally don’t go to synagogue a lot. We’re not kosher, but we don’t eat pork.”
“There are more people here than in the town,” Virginia says, surveying the place from the shadow under the arched gate at the entrance. “Five thousand.”
It’s an observation she obviously has made before, and which seems to continue to impress her. Perhaps it is her way of indicating her acceptance of the direction the town is going. The cemetery is also full of stories of what life was like in Moises Ville in bad times and good, of how it was different from other places.
It was a hard life, and occasionally dangerous. Unfriendly Indians prowled down from the wild Chaco region, and outlaws, “savage gauchos,” in Virginia’s words, roamed about. Guards were set out at night. All the members but one of the family of Jose Waisman and Guitel Peremuter, were murdered by such an outlaw. Theirs is the longest grave in the cemetery. This occurred in 1897. The little girl who survived lived 90 years.
“There were such men in those days,” says Virginia. They raided the estancias, stole cattle, afflicted the colonists of all nationalities.
Another violent death suggested something else, a lethal failure to communicate, perhaps. Gregorio Gerschunoff died Feb.12, 1891. He was off the Wesser, and as with all of that company spoke only Yiddish. Possibly he didn’t understand the intentions of the gaucho who kept riding up to his house bearing cakes and natural sweets and other small gifts. Maybe Gerschunoff thought they were some sort of welcome. He learned their true purpose when the gaucho, who had his eye on the colonist’s pretty daughter, came to take her away. Gerschunoff resisted; the gaucho killed him.
Years later Alberto Gerschunoff, Gregorio’s grandson and famous Argentine journalist, wrote a successful novel titled The Jewish Gauchos.
The concept is not so preposterous as it might seem. Riding, tending cattle, with lasso and the boleadoras, is what one does on the pampas. The first child born to the families who arrived on the Wesser was Julio Sandier (1889—1978). His adaptation to the culture of the pampas is a small legend in the history of Moises Ville. The picture of him in the town museum shows a handsome, confident young man of 20, with a black beard and a turned up waxed mustache, a white scarf and flaring riding trousers, the gaucho bombachas. The gravestone photo of Julio Sandier reveals a robust, still-handsome, grey-haired man in a dark shirt and neckerchief.
Rabbi Goldman is in the cemetery, near a huge mausoleum, big as a garage, raised by Israel Weisburd, another of the original colonists. Weisburd became very wealthy. He had it built for his entire clan.
“But he’s in there alone,” said Virginia. “After he died his children began fighting over the inheritance and his land, and the family fell apart.”
Which is to say, life in Moises Ville was often very much like it is everywhere else.
Once Moises Ville got started, it grew into a robust farming community in the deep pampas. The former shtetl Jews grew wheat, corn, alfalfa, and sunflowers for their oil. They raised cattle. They pooled their resources into the first agricultural cooperative in Santa Fe Province, and possibly in Argentina. Other colonists, non-Jews, imitated them.
The colonists built the first synagogue in the 1920’s. They named it after Baron de Hirsch. They named the main street after him as well. The synagogue is a graceful white structure, approached down a path lined with dusty pine trees. Inside it is a crisp blue and gray; electric fans descend from its painted board ceiling. Three other synagogues were raised, a sign of the vigor of the town’s religious life.
Cultural life flourished as well. A theater rose on the main plaza, the Kadima. Yiddish plays were offered there. Troupes from Europe came. “If they flopped here,” said Golde Kuperstein de Gerson, a member of the town council, “they didn’t open in Buenos Aires.”
Two newspapers were published, one in Spanish, the other in Spanish and Yiddish, and even an “Oral Newspaper”: The Glasberg Brothers set up a speaker in the Plaza San Martin and read the news to people strolling by.
The town had a library of Hebrew and Yiddish texts, and in 1948, a seminary for teachers of Hebrew was opened. Between that year and 1993 this seminary turned out more than 550 teachers of that language. A 1993 survey revealed that about 100 of those graduates were teaching Hebrew in Israel, and an equal number were teaching throughout Argentina.
It was a Jewish town. Jewish iconography decorated its buildings, the bank, the theater, Stars of David here, the Lion of Judah there, Hebrew inscriptions. All the older residents spoke Yiddish. A few knew Hebrew. Jewish gauchos loped through its streets, Jewish farmers came in to buy bread and strudel. They had taken to the land and had been rewarded.
Adolfo Blumenthal, 70, a sun-browned farmer with a shy smile, came to Moises Ville in 1939. “My father said I would live a tranquil life,” he said. “I worked in the campo for 39 years. For me there is nothing outside the campo.”
In 1948, Moises Ville had about 5,000 residents, the current population of the cemetery, the great majority Jewish. The congregations grew with each generation, and by taking in refugees from sporadic turmoil in Europe. Pogroms in 1918—19 in the Ukraine sent more Jews fleeing to the New World. In the 1930’s Jews from Holland, Germany, and Poland arrived, fleeing the Nazi terror.
There is evidence of these periodic arrivals in the museum, a collection of the day-to-day items that people brought with them: stiff family photographs, Russian currency from the time of the czars; old passports from Czechoslovakia and Poland, with the bleak and fearful faces of their owners staring out into the here and now, official emigration documents testifying to the bearer’s sanity, Yiddish newspaper accounts of pogroms in Russia, German bank notes from Hitler’s time, samples of the internal currency used in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia; a 19th-century potato masher, a collection of silver dessert spoons, a copper bed warmer, a samovar, a bright blue and gold jacket owned by a Greek soldier.
Moises Ville began as a Jewish town on the pampas. Today it is a town on the pampas with a large and still vigorous Jewish minority. Of its 2,700 residents only about 400 are Jews. Hardly anybody speaks or understands Yiddish. The last rabbi left in the 1980’s, and although the Hirsch synagogue, the first synagogue, remains open, services are irregular.
The Kadima offers plays and musical entertainment. But most performances are in Spanish, most of the singers in the town chorale Catholics. Last year the Hebrew seminary had 50 students. This number will certainly decline.
Nobody doubts that Moises Ville is in decline, as are most other farming communities across this agricultural nation, all for the same reasons. Families here were always large. One of the requirements demanded of applicants to the Jewish Colonization Association was that they have large families, enough children to carry out the many tasks on a successful farm. With the mechanization of agriculture, these tasks diminished. Those not working the land had to find alternative careers. They went off to the cities to become doctors, lawyers, accountants.
“My three brothers are in Buenos Aires,” says Eva Rosenthal. “Many, many members of my family live in Cordoba and Tucuman,” both major cities.
All the towns of Argentina built exclusively on agriculture are in the same fix, as are farming towns in Ohio, Iowa, and Kansas. If there is no industry, there are no jobs. So the young people, the new engineers, computer specialists, settle wherever they can. It’s a diaspora that affects Jew and gentiles alike.
In biographies of Theodore Herzl, of which there are many, the Argentine colonization program of Baron de Hirsch, when mentioned, is often dismissed in a few paragraphs as a mere tangent going off in the wrong direction, a deviation in the long and tortuous journey of the Jews. It is overwhelmed by the culminating success of Herd’s movement in 1948, the establishment of Israel, 44 years after his death. So compelling was this event, so seismic to Jewish historic sensibilities, that thousands fled from all parts of the world to be among those latter-day pioneers in Palestine. They fled from Moises Ville as well.
“Many, many left from here,” said Eva Rosenthal. “They took their experience with agricultural co-operatives into the kibbutz movement.”
It is probable that, despite some renewed interest in Moises Ville among Jews scattered throughout Argentina, that the town will continue to decline, and with it its Jewish heart. And that raises the question, was it a failure, just an experiment that will eventually play itself out? Or was it a success, and if so, why?
Baron de Hirsch never did expect the colonists he supported to carve out a Jewish state within the heart of an already existing state. He sponsored them so they might prosper and find fulfilment within another country, not a life apart within that country. Moises Ville—as well as other dwindling Jewish colonies such as Lucien Ville (named after Baron de Hirsch’s son), and Colonia Mauricio, named after the Baron himself—has sent its sons and daughters all over Argentina. They have helped build the second largest Jewish population in the Americas, some 300,000. Most have found their place in the national culture without surrendering their traditions.
This is what Hirsch wanted. It is what Herzl wanted but thought impossible, at least in Europe. But the experience of the Jews in the New World has been largely free of the kind of violence so resonant of Europe in the centuries past. Not that it has been free of anti-Semitism. There is still plenty of that, as the attack by a white supremacist on a Jewish kindergarten in California in 1999, and the bombings of a Jewish cultural center in 1994 in Buenos Aires show. These are reminders of the persistence of that ancient evil. But pogroms, massive and organized persecutions, have not crossed the water.
When you arrive in Moises Ville, necessarily in a cloud of dust, the first indication that things there are not quite the same as in other pampas towns are the street names, such as State of Israel Street. Others refer to events and personages in Jewish history; these are crossed by streets named for Argentine heroes: Bartolome Mitre, San Martin, etc. At the center, two streets cross that divide the community north from south, east from west, named after Baron de Hirsch and Theodore Herzl. Like their namesakes, they go off in different directions.