Here's What Happened to the Fantasy of a Jewish Autonomy in Argentina

The area was known as ‘Jerusalem of Argentina.’ Some hoped that Moises Ville would become the hub of an autonomous Jewish district. These days, all that's left are a gravestone maker who has no work, an aging gaucho and, above all, memories

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The Moises Ville collective dairy, mid-1930s.
The Moises Ville collective dairy, mid-1930s. Credit: Jewish Colonization Association photo collection, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem.
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

On Baron Hirsch Street in Moises Ville, a small town 600 kilometers north of Buenos Aires, a robust man of 72 is standing amid stacks of old and new bicycle parts. He greets us as we approach, before setting off to look for a tire valve.

But Alberto Lind turns out to be not only a bike repairman. He’s also the last maker of gravestones remaining in this once-promising Jewish settlement on the Argentine Pampas. The idea, according to its patron, Baron Moritz von Hirsch, was to establish “a kind of autonomous Jewish state.” The Jewish colonies that dotted Argentina were once considered the model of a free life for the Jewish people, where they could be close to the soil and safe from pogroms.

In the peak years of Moises Ville, the 1940s, the town boasted about 5,000 Jews, constituting more than 90 percent of the population of what was dubbed the “Jerusalem of Argentina.” “Shall we choose Palestine or Argentina?” Theodor Herzl reflected in 1896, upon publishing his seminal work, “The Jewish State.” It wasn’t until a year later that he arrived at a decision.

When he was 20, Lind – who notes with pride that in Hebrew he’s Avraham and in Yiddish, Avrum – was the local policeman. When a truck speeding past his house hit and killed his best friend’s son, he used his calligraphic skills to fashion a fine headstone. Impressed by his work, the community made him the official tombstone maker for the next 50 years. Lind says with satisfaction that stones engraved by him adorn cemeteries as far away as Buenos Aires and that some have even been sent to mark graves in Israel.

Alberto Lind, Moises Ville's gravestone maker and bicycle repairman.Credit: Maira Cortez

Today, fewer than 140 Jews live in Moises Ville, out of a total population of about 2,500. Press clippings about the town constitute a statistical record of the ongoing decline of its Jewish population. A report from 1965 cites 2,000; another, from 1975, mentions 1,200. In 2002, Haaretz reported that fewer than 300 Jews lived there. Today, although the Jewish community is quite elderly, Lind’s headstone work is slack. At one time he engraved 60 markers a year, now it’s down to five. It’s that falloff that led him to take up bicycle repair.

“Once there was a community,” he says sadly, though with his ever-present smile. “There was a Jewish bank and there were Jewish schools. It’s all gone.”

I know what he means: I felt during my visit to Moises Ville as if I’d come to a big party a few hours after the revelry ended, with the only people still in the hall having been somehow abandoned, along with decorations that are still waiting to be taken down. The people I met were extraordinarily sociable. The interviewees didn’t want to let me go – they all wanted to go on and on talking about the town. As though all that’s left to the handful of remaining Jews is the history and the splendid memories.

The only Mizrahi

The settlers in pre-1948 Palestine viewed the Jewish colonies in Argentina as competition, were angry that money was being diverted into the South American venture, and prayed – sometimes silently, sometimes not so silently – for its demise. But the other side didn’t see things quite the same way. The Argentine settlers admired their counterparts in the Land of Israel, while they generally viewed their own endeavor as a transition stage necessary to flee from Eastern Europe.

Following Britain’s publication of the Balfour Declaration, in 1917, the Jews living in the Argentinean settlements begged for land in Palestine from the institutions of the Jewish community there, so that they could join them. But in contrast to the Jews of Europe, they saw their requests denied, even though they already possessed agricultural know-how. Everyone I met in Moises Ville spoke proudly about the number of times they had visited Israel and rattled off the names of the places in the Jewish state where their children live. In this sense, the decline of the Jewish community of Moises Ville can be viewed as the success of the Zionist education its residents received.

The beginnings were auspicious, as a tour of the town reveals. Even though the first settlers, who arrived in October 1889, barely had anything to eat, they established a fine theater, which is still in operation (the resident amateur group’s current production is about toilets), impressive business cooperatives and two libraries.

The library in Moises Ville, Argentina. Credit: Maira Cortez

Unlike their peers in present-day Israel, the Jewish people venerated culture. “A library and a cemetery are the institutions that are capable of encompassing everyone – Zionist and anarchist,” wrote Hersh David Nomberg, who visited Moises Ville nearly a century ago. Nomberg was especially taken by the library. He noted that, in each of the far-flung places he visited in Argentina, the library was always the first place he was shown.

Most of the people I met were affable pensioners. Their children had for the most part moved to Israel or to big cities in Argentina. The number of Jews under the age of 20 in Moises Ville can be counted on the fingers of two hands. One of the centers of local Jewish life is a museum of Jewish settlement, established in 1989, the centenary of what was the original Jewish colony in Latin America. The museum’s devoted director is Ilana (Hilda) Zamori, 45, whose father fled to Moises Ville as a child from Germany in 1938. During the state’s early years, he tried out life in Israel, and even fought in the 1967 Six-Day War, before finally returning to Moises Ville. Though her mother is not Jewish, Zamori tells me, her maternal grandfather spoke perfect Yiddish – the language of the colony – which he picked up by ear.

“In the early years, there were no intermarriages,” she says, “and when they started, people didn’t like it. Over the years they got used to it. My father’s family accepted my mother kindly.”

The museum’s founder, Chava (Eva) Gelbert, maintains that Moises Ville’s heritage remains intact.

“The place has changed, but something remains of it,” she says. “Every home knows how to make knishes. Visitors from Israel asked the high-school girls who showed them around whether they were Jews. They explained that even though they are not Jewish, they identify with the town’s history.”

The synagogue in Moises Ville, Argentina. Credit: Maira Cortez

After my visit to the theater, I was taken to see the sukkah that was being erected in the back of the empty “Yahadut” (Judaism) School. We met Hector, a non-Jewish employee of the Jewish Agency, who was smilingly decorating the sukkah with branches from palm-like trees that grow behind the theater. I asked him if he knew what the meaning of the holiday booth was. “People come to drink coffee and tea in this house,” he replied. Indeed, Zamouri said that, come Friday, the Kabbalat Shabbat service would take place here.

A placard at the school’s entrance celebrating Israel’s achievements is replete with logos of companies such as Waze and Mobileye, which have enjoyed successful corporate exits. There’s also a photograph of Israel’s late Nobel laureate for literature S.Y. Agnon and photos of made-in-U.S.A. Israeli warplanes.

Lydia Mrejen, a 63-year-old teacher, comes over and immediately declares, “I am the only Mizrahi in Moises Ville” – referring to a Jew of Middle Eastern descent. Fortunately, the Mrejen family never experienced ethnic discrimination. “We were the only Sephardim, but we didn’t feel the difference.”

Mrejen was born in Meknes, Morocco, where her father received agricultural training with a view to settling in Israel. But reports of wars with the Arabs deterred the family. Her father heard about the Jewish colony in Argentina, which sounded less dangerous, and gambled on the New World. However, he’d been trained to raise crops, whereas the business in Argentina was beef. His integration into the community was further hampered because he didn’t speak Yiddish.

According to Mrehen, going to Argentina was a mistake: Making aliyah to Israel would have been the smarter move – at least there was no danger of going hungry there. She notes that when her father had to choose which of four synagogues to join, he opted for the one belonging to the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) stream .

Jewish settlers in Moises Ville, Argentina, in the late '30s. Credit: Jewish Colonization Association photo collection, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem

Mayflower gauchos

The notion of sending Russian Jews to establish settlements in distant Argentina may sound odd today, but at the end of the 19th century, some people thought it was a good idea, at least on paper. The Russian empire was rife with anti-Semitic laws and pogroms, while Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world, in terms of natural and financial resources, and having just completed the Conquest of the Desert campaign to displace the country’s indigenous peoples – an enterprise viewed in some quarters today as genocidal – it was receptive to European settlement in its vast expanses. On August 14, 1889, the cargo ship Wesser, sort of a gaucho version of the Mayflower, cast anchor in Buenos Aires, with 836 Jews aboard. According to one source, the authorities initially feared that an attempt was being made to smuggle in Jewish women to work in prostitution, a popular import at the time.

Once on shore, the immigrants discovered that the local real estate magnate had reneged on the land-sale deal he’d promised, and that they were stuck in the big city. Eventually they purchased an alternative property, in Santa Fe province, from an attorney named Pedro Palacios, who regaled them with tales of land, houses, food and tools – but who also cheated them. In 1956, an elderly Felipe Shilman, one of the surviving immigrants who had sailed on the Wesser, told a newspaper that when the group finally arrived at the specified train station, nothing awaited them.

“It was very bad, we had no houses. All the families lived together in a silo at the train station,” Shilman said. “Nearly 60 children died and were buried in empty boxes. Passengers on trains that went by threw pieces of biscuits to the hungry children.”

Fortunately for the group, a few weeks later, Wilhelm Loewenthal, a prominent physician, happened to pass through the train station. Seeing children dressed in rags and speaking Yiddish, he went to the country’s minister of foreign affairs to complain. In the wake of his appeal, the magnate Palacios finally coughed up the promised housing, food and agricultural training. The children and adults from the 50 surviving families walked the few kilometers from the station to the site designated for Moises Ville, led by their leader, the charismatic Rabbi Aharon Halevi Goldman.

The colony was established not long after Sukkot in October 1889. The townspeople insist that Goldman named the settlement Moises Ville because he saw a resemblance between the ordeals of the immigrants and those of Moses and the Israelites in the desert. More likely, it was an act of flattery aimed at the financier, Baron Hirsch, whose Hebrew name was Moshe (Moses). Although it took years for Moises Ville to blossom, it served as the baron’s inspiration for the establishment of additional settlements throughout the continent, to accommodate Jewish asylum seekers.

Hirsch chose the Argentinian option because he didn’t believe in doing business with the decaying Ottoman Empire, after having been burned by it in a railway lines project. Mainly, though, this was also a competition between the rich. Baron Edmond James de Rothschild invested in the Palestine Jewish community. Baron Hirsch, who was also known as someone who gambled on horses, put his money on Argentina. Hirsch died six years after he started to invest in Moises Ville. It wasn’t long before demonstrations began against officials of the Jewish Colonization Association, whom Hirsch had sent to manage the colony. Besides being tough, the officials were French and secular, whereas the settlers were Russian and pious.

Beehives in Moises Ville, Argentina. Credit: Jewish Colonization Association photo collection, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem

“They do not have a Jewish heart that would feel for the trouble of their brethren,” one of the settlers wrote about the JCA officials in a series of letters of complaint that are today in the collection of the National Library in Jerusalem.

But time did its work. Even though settlers were robbed and murdered by gauchos – anarchistic cowboys whose roaming the government was trying to stop – all in all, the economic situation in Moises Ville stabilized. The locust infestation was solved by the cultivation of alfalfa, fodder that grew quickly anew after it was harvested.

The second generation of colonists became involved in the cattle business and were known as “Jewish gauchos,” in the wake of a book of short stories titled “Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas,” by Alberto Gerchunoff, published in 1910. “This is a land where everyone works and where the Christian will not hate us, because there the sky is different,” the protagonist of one of the stories promised. In fact, Gerchunoff’s father, a rabbi, had been murdered in Moises Ville by a drunken gaucho. In another story, a daughter’s rabbi falls in love with a gaucho against her parents’ advice and runs off with him on the evening of the seder. The collection is considered a classic of Jewish Latin American literature.

In 1919, in the wake of the massive immigration of World War I refugees, the events of the “tragic week” occurred – Latin America’s first pogrom. The perpetrators saw the cosmopolitan Jews, many of whom were indeed socialists, as “carriers of the communist virus,” and feared that they were about to establish a Soviet state in Argentina and Uruguay.

The rise of the Nazis generated a significant additional wave of immigration from Germany, but as little land was available and the possibilities for higher education in Moises Ville were limited, the young people left for the big cities. Israel’s establishment and the opening of its gates to new immigrants came as a turning point. Some of the many Jews who left founded Kibbutz Miflasim, near the Gaza border, in 1949.

Arik Sharon and Che Guevara

Marta Singer, whom I found in a fitness class for seniors, took charge of my visit and became my official guide and interpreter, accompanied by her dog, Sweetie. “There are no more young people in any of the small cities,” Singer says, explaining the collapse of Moises Ville’s Jewish community. “There is no place here for lawyers, for example. And in any case, this is a hard time for Argentina. Today, after three months on the job, the governor of the Central Bank resigned again, because of the rise in inflation. Once the peso and the shekel were equal in value: 3 pesos and 3 shekels to the dollar. Look how the shekel has remained strong, but the peso is already 40 to the dollar.”

Luis Enrique Ulmansky during a visit to Eilat, Israel. April 1974.Credit: Clara Kardonsky

Singer tells me by the by that a Moises Ville inhabitant, Luis Enrique Ulmansky, who was born in the nearby Jewish town of Las Palmeras, was kidnapped and murdered by the junta in 1977, suspected by the military regime of subversive activity. “They grabbed everyone who helped the poor – university students, people whose address they found somewhere,” she says.

Ulmansky, a psychology student, was active in the National University of Rosario’s socialist cell, like many in Argentina, though this didn’t prevent him from working for a few months in the Jewish bank of Moises Ville, which is situated across from the museum. Although it has merged with a big bank, it still retains a Star of David on its façade.

Ulmansky was 25 years old and recently married when, on January 20, 1977, when he and his wife, Gladys Beatriz Hiriburu, a medical student, were abducted from a bar in the city of Rosario along with five others. They were taken to a secret detention camp – one of 340 such facilities in the country– situated in the city’s police intelligence headquarters, and were tortured by the interrogators. One of them managed to slip out of a window and survive.

At 2:30 A.M. on January 23, they were murdered and buried in an unmarked grave. Ulmansky’s body was identified, but the bodies of two of the group’s members disappeared without a trace. The press published the government’s cover story, in which it claimed that they were killed in a chase while transporting explosives.

Of the 30,000 people who were abducted and murdered between 1974 and 1983, during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” between 1,500 and 3,000 were Jews, although Jews constituted only 1 percent of the country’s population at the time.

Marta Singer with her dog, Sweetie.Credit: Maira Cortez

“In the early 1970s, a group of Jewish students from several universities in Argentina organized with the aim of fulfilling a dream to live in a kibbutz through self-realization,” Daniel Kupervaser, a contemporary of Ulmansky, wrote to me. “About 35 haverim [comrades] arrived at Givat Oz in 1973 and 1974. Unfortunately, the dream was premature and was shattered. Many of the group remained in the country and succeeded privately. Luis was close to us in Argentina, but he was young, and didn’t join the group. Still, the Yom Kippur War brought him to Israel for a short time as a volunteer in our kibbutz. After that we lost touch, and then we heard about his bitter fate.”

I can see that Marta Singer is saddened when I tell her that Israel sold Uzis and parkas to the soldiers of the military dictatorship even as the rest of the world imposed a boycott on Argentina. “How do you know that?” she asks, and I think that I haven’t made a 20-hour flight in order to grieve these nice people, so I change the subject.

Moises Ville is currently a candidate for recognition by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. According to Singer, the title “is in the bag.” She relates that Alfredo Conti, a conservation architect from UNESCO, visited with her at the theater and in the synagogue, and exclaimed “Wow!” a few times. Museum director Elana Zamouri, who is more restrained, says, “There’s a chance of our making the list. We in the museum are working on documents and pictures. It will give the place momentum; we hope that it will bring tourists, and maybe generate work for the young. There’s no work, so they leave.”

One of the last surviving Jewish gauchos of Moises Ville, Arminio Seiferheld. Credit: Maira Cortez

I asked to meet with one of the surviving Jewish gauchos and was taken to Arminio Seiferheld, who’s 73. He greeted us in a well-kept yard, an elegant bowtie around his neck. He was disappointed that I couldn’t conduct a conversation with him in Yiddish or German. An Argentine flag hangs in the entrance to his house, which is filled with objects relating to Israel, such as a poster depicting Mount Tabor. His parents fled from the Nazis after Kristallnacht, in 1938, and made for Argentina. Seiferheld grew up in a nearby Jewish settlement, a tiny one made up of Jews from Germany.

He’s very proud of his past as a rancher. From behind the sofa he pulls out laminated posters with pictures of cows and huge bulls, which he categorizes according to their origin, speaking about them very lovingly. “I miss the horses,” he says. He shows us photographs of his father, Bernardo, “who was a gaucho and a cantor.” He and his wife have four children, all of them teachers. Two of them have already immigrated to Israel, and another daughter will soon follow.

“I want to stay here, but my wife wants to leave for Israel,” he says, clearly torn. “Life here isn’t what it was, but it’s still calm here.” Seiferheld is active in the Moises Ville community and was mayor in the 1980s. He’s now studying the German-Jewish immigration to the small settlements in the district; so far he’s found 400 names of settlers. “Only five are still living here, or are still living,” he says.

T. Hertzl corner of E. de Israel in Moises Ville, Argentina.Credit: Maira Cortez

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