Argentina—the word conjures up images of fiery gauchos and romantic tangueros…or is it romantic gauchos and fiery tangueros? If your travel agent suggested this country as your next vacation destination, what would come to mind? Based on my experiences, most people respond with the Broadway song, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina. They think of crazed soccer players, or worse yet, they imagine a country overrun by escaped Nazis. I have another image; but mine is painted by a refined hand, a landscape of multiple layers of color, shadows, and dimension. You see, although Argentina is my native country; it is not my ancestral home. I’m the granddaughter of Russian immigrants—Jews fleeing the pogroms and chaos prior to the Revolution.
My Argentine travel blog would not showcase the exquisite architecture inspired by the French. Museums, theaters, cultural and government centers abound. There’s no particular need for me to point them out. I wouldn’t speak of the British influence on such things as finger sandwiches, polo or afternoon tea. Neither would I speak of how the Brits constructed the nation’s first railroad system. I wouldn’t ramble on about the grass-fed cattle or the mouthwatering cuisine heavily influenced by the Italians. I wouldn’t point out that you could visit prairies, jungles, deserts, glaciers or the majestic Iguazú Falls—larger and wider than Niagara and far more breathtaking. I understand…you want to know about all these things. You want to know about gauchos and hear about the Paris of South America, with its sensual nights of dancing tango and drinking Malbec; but in my world; Argentina is about drinking maté and eating potato knishes in my bobe’s house. Yes, I said my bobe’s house (not bubbe).
Jews in Argentina? They went there during WWII, right? No! Although there has been a Jewish community in South America since the time of Cristobal Colon (that’s Christopher Columbus), significant number of Jews began arriving towards the end of the 19th century. You are familiar with the exodus from Eastern Europe into the United States, but did you know that thousands upon thousands found their “New Jerusalem” in Argentina? Facilitated by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the Jewish Colonization Association was created on September 11, 1891 with the intention of evacuating persecuted Jews from Imperial Russia. The J.C.A. worked in collaboration with the Argentine government by placing the immigrants in agricultural colonies throughout the rich, untapped land of the newly founded nation.
In Entre Ríos, there were over seventeen colonies, including Basavilbaso (Lucienville), Clara, Pedernal, and Villa Domínguez. In the province of Buenos Aires, there was Colonia Lapin, Carlos Casares and Rivera to name a few. Santa Fe was home of the most famous colony Moises Ville. Bernasconi (Narcisse Levin) was located in the province of La Pampa; and in the northern tip of the country, was Colonia Dora in Santiago del Estero.
Sembramos trigo y cosechamos doctores
We sow wheat and we reap doctors—that was the famous saying among the pioneers who toiled on the pampas, but birthed a new and hopeful generation of engineers, scientists, teachers and entrepreneurs.
La colectividad—the Jewish community in Argentina—is second only to the United States and it thanks to these unsung heroes, these Jewish gauchos. The colonists organized agricultural co-operatives. They built libraries, hospital, and charitable organizations. They built schools for their children to study both secular and religious programs. They built athletic organizations and impressive country clubs where families met for networking and socializing, challenging the most popular clubs of the American Borscht Belt. Their aspirations and achievements need to be heralded. Oh, and by the way, you would be remiss to think that these immigrants were all illiterate, wretched and downtrodden. Among their numbers were people of means and consequence who contributed not only their knowledge and funds, but a hearty spirit of perseverance and hope!
Not wanting to be accused of having a revisionist view of history, I can’t neglect to mention the hardships, the anti-Semitism and outright evil that Argentine Jews faced. And sometimes, it was at the hands of their own people.
- A Polish organized crime group, the Zwi Migdal, established a holding in Buenos Aires as early as 1860. Their sole purpose was the trafficking of Central European Jewish women into forced prostitution. The organization was legally registered as the Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society and they lured the women from their homes and families by promising a fresh start in a new country, away from economic strife and persecution. Desperate and hopeless, parents would send their daughters away thinking that they would be settled in proper Jewish homes as servants or taught some useful skill in a country that was at the cusp of becoming a leading nation. Often times, the harsh realities of their new lives began as soon as they boarded the ship.
- In January 1919, for the duration of an entire “tragic week” (Semana Trágica), the Jewish community in Buenos Aires experienced a pogrom—physical violence and destruction of property on par with what many had experienced in the old country. At the time, the United States embassy reported that 1,500 people were killed, “mostly Russians and generally Jews.”
- During the “Dirty War” era of 1976-1983, disproportionate numbers of Jewish students and professionals were victimized, kidnapped, tortured, or were simply made to “disappear” as a hard-right military regime attempted to control left-wing extremists fighting to create a Marxist stronghold.
- In the 1990’s, both the Israeli embassy and the A.M.I.A. (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) buildings were bombed—allegedly by Hezbollah.
When I would ask my grandparents about the anti-Semitism they would say, “Yes, it exists, but we don’t allow it to define us.” Argentine Jews faced stifling and horrific events—comparable to what was experienced in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe—nonetheless in many, important ways, their adopted country did indeed prove to be their “New Jerusalem.” There was heartache and hardship, of course, but my grandparents impressed upon me that there was no time to cry. They were too busy getting on with the business of living!
Admit it…you know the song. You’ve seen the play. Eva Peron is standing on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, arms stretched out—aching to embrace her enamored, spell-bound followers. But Argentina is more than the infamous—villainous—Perons. Argentina is more than futbol and Messi. Argentina is more than the guerilla leader, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. To me, Argentina is where my ancestors found their refuge. It is where knishes and empanadas shared a table. It is where the sweet sounds of the klezmer’s clarinet combined with the gaucho’s guitar; and later, the tanguero’s bandoneón. That is my Argentina and I want to share it with you.
Too often, we think of Russian Jews and imagine Tevye and his cohorts in Anetevka. There is nothing wrong with that—Sholem Aleichem was a beloved and brilliant teller of tales. I simply want to add to that narrative. Take the story of the Jewish gaucho and that romantic tanguero into your heart. Set them alongside the stories of Tevye and your own ancestors, but remember: Do not cry!
An excerpt from Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey
Having traveled several miles deep in her own thoughts, Leah suddenly realized that the chatter and excitement, stemming from both the children and the adults, had decreased significantly. Turning her head ever so slightly to the right and then to the left, Leah witnessed the cause for the abrupt change in her family’s emotions. Lonely homesteads spotted the terrain. Farmland and open range was all one could see.
As if he could read their minds, Yosef called out from the head wagon. Cupping his hands around his lips, so that his voice would travel down the line he exclaimed, “Remember—we are free to come and go as we please. This is not the Pale of Settlement and there are no inspectors, revizors, or Okhrana!”
At that precise moment, Leah found Yosef’s astute observation very small comfort, indeed. Slow and steady, the oxen ambled on for what seemed an eternity before señor Lipinsky held up his hand, signaling the drivers to come to a stop. They had arrived.
The Abramovitz men jumped off the wagons and handed down the women and children. Dismayed, they stood solemnly in place and quietly took in their surroundings. A dilapidated wooden fence, in dire need of sanding and a new coat of paint, marked the property. As señor Lipinsky had promised, the lot and the dwelling appeared somewhat larger than those seen on the previous homesteads. León Goldfarb had mentioned that they would most likely have a cabin or a cottage, depending on their luck, along with a small barn and granary. His assumption had been correct.
“I cannot believe that we trekked across Mother Russia through Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean to end up here—to live like krepostnyye!” Naftali bellowed.
“We are not serfs, Brother. We will work the land for our own benefit—not for some nobleman,” replied Yosef. “And we will live in peace.”
“We might as well have gone to Siberia,” was Yaacov’s grim reply. “We are in the middle of nowhere.”
“‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!’” Ysroel recited. “‘For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death’—does that sound familiar? We have not yet been here one full day!” exclaimed the pious brother. “Where is your faith?”
Malka nodded her agreement. “It is quite fitting that you quote Exodus, my son, for are we not the epitome of Israelites wandering in the desert? But the Lord will provide—of that I am sure!”
Señor Lipinsky cleared his throat and the men turned towards the agent. Aware that the Abramovitz family had begun their odyssey with a different plan in mind, he did not begrudge them their displeasure. He could only imagine the life they had led in Odessa in the upper stratums of Jewish society. It was quite a different scenario than the vast majority of colonists, but not completely unheard of. The agronomic engineer, Miguel Sajaroff and his brother-in-law, Doctor Noé Yarcho, were both learned men of means—certainly known and admired among the colonists. They, too, had come from rather illustrious origins.
Señor Lipinsky gently reminded the family that they were on the outskirts of town but, there was indeed a thriving town–a Jewish town. The children would be required to attend public school in the morning; but the town was proud to boast of their own cheder, where Yiddish and religious studies were taught in the afternoons. The community had shops, a synagogue, a cemetery and a social hall. They would soon meet their neighbors and establish friendships with the criollos and the yiden alike.
“We—the Argentines and the Jews—live together in peace,” he said. “God has made it possible for us to make a good life here.”
“Of course, señor Lipinsky and we will do the same—may it be Hashem’s will,” replied Malka, as she turned and took in the full view of their new land. “Are these fruit trees? The orchard seems to have been abandoned, but with some work, we will have a bountiful harvest next year. This reminds me of when I was a child. It will be good for the kinder to get their hands into the dirt.”
“You most likely will find peach and plum trees. At home, we also have mango,” the land agent boasted.
“What is a mango?” Duvid asked. “May I try one?”
Señor Lipinsky laughed. “Yes, of course boychik! When you taste it, you will think it is a slice of heaven. Sweet and tangy, it is like biting into a peach and an orange at the same time.”
“Come now, children,” Malka said, as she marched to the door. “Let us enter our new home with uplifted spirits and gratitude in our hearts.”
With their mother and señor Lipinsky leading the way, the Abramovitz clan followed suit. Leah trailed behind. She willed herself not to turn around, but curiosity overruled. The gauchos were still there—he was still there.
From atop his steed, El Moro removed his hat once more, and placed it over his heart. Knowing she owed him apology, she sunk into a deep curtsey, as if he were the Tsar himself. He laughed, not in a disparaging fashion, but with full appreciation of her good sportsmanship. He let out a triumphant holler, as the men turned their horses and raced away. Feeling herself blush, Leah laughed as well and quickly caught up with the family now entering their new lodgings.
Her mother, having removed her hat and gloves, was inspecting the building, which could not be compared to anything but the gardener’s cabin back home. Leah could see her mamá’s mind at work. She could only imagine the list of duties that soon would be imparted to each and every one. When she heard her mother speaking of chemical compounds, Leah began to understand the true magnitude of the undertaking.
“I will need a fair amount of the product, if we are to paint these walls and the fruit trees,” Malka informed the J.C.A. agent.
“Yes, of course,” Lipinsky replied, agreeing with the fine lady’s assessment. Many of the colonists applied whitewash to the trees in order to prevent sun scorching.
“My father was known to paint the entire tree trunk, not just the bottom portion, as he insisted that it kept the tree from blooming prematurely.”
“We are going to paint the trees?” Duvid asked.
“Yes, as well as the house,” said Malka. “If we can purchase a bit of blue dye—perhaps a local laundress might have a decent supply—we can color the calcimine and end up with a lovely shade of pale blue.”
“Lovely. It will be our very own Winter Palace,” added Leah in jest. Having only known the luxury of living on a grand estate, she hadn’t a clue of the benefits of whitewashing; and although she had enjoyed her lessons with watercolors, the idea of washing the grimy stone walls sounded exhausting. Noting the sarcasm in her own voice, Leah winced and waited for the certain rebuke. When none came, she decided it was in her best interest to pay attention to her mamá.
“We will cover the walls with this compound several times a year, my dears, for the coating has hygienic properties. Once we have added successive applications, layers of scale will build up on the roughhewn walls, and the flakes will fall off. Then it is simply a matter of sweeping away any remaining debris,” she said, running her finger along the wainscoting. You shall see…with fresh, clean paint, colorful curtains, and cheerful wildflowers on the table, we will feel quite at home.”
“It will be like visiting the country house!” shouted Duvid with delight.
“It will be better than visiting our dacha—we will be home.” replied Yosef.