European Jewish artisans on horseback in Argentina
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, almost 200,000 Jews emigrated from Russia and Poland to Argentina. Life in the Jewish communities of both countries, under the dominion of the Czar, was unbearable. Except for a brief respite in the early years of the reign of Alexander II, which began in 1855, Jewish life was limited by cultural, social and commercial laws. Above all, the pogroms, during which the gentile population was allowed to turn on the Jews, looting and killing with complete impunity, forced the Jews to consider ways of escape.
The majority of Jews in nineteenth-century Russia were artisans or small businessmen in towns and villages. There were also Jewish farmers, but these were more rare. Few Jews owned land, since forced resettlement and Czarist real estate laws made it very difficult for Jews to purchase property. Alexander I had allowed them to live in small colonies far to the east of Moscow, in Siberia, “to check the selfish interests of the Jews.” My great-great-grandparents on my mother’s side were among both the artisans and the new settlers. One was a mattress maker from the outskirts of Moscow; another worked as a sort of gardener or land-keeper on the estate of a Russian princess somewhere near St. Petersburg. I never knew the princess’s name because my grandmother referred to her, with nostalgic reverence, simply as “die Prinze.”
After Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, a wave of anti-Semitism swept throughout Russia. Only a few Jewish intellectuals had been involved in the terrorist plot, but the Russian aristocracy encouraged the new Czar, Alexander III, to blame the Jews for the murder. Pogroms of extraordinary violence exploded throughout the Russian territory, so terrible that they elicited protests from both the American and the British governments, and caused Alexander to issue a restraining edict. Unfortunately for the Jews, the edict made matters worse by forcing them to resettle within the confines of a strip of land called the Pale of Settlement, established earlier by Catherine II, extending from Latvia to the Ukraine. Only by special permission were Jews allowed to live outside this crescent.
Even in this seemingly desperate situation, Jews believed in the promise of the homeland, Zion, the land of Israel. The political and intellectual stimulus behind this hope came largely through the Hungarian leader Theodor Herzl, founder in 1896 of the world Zionist movement.
For those who did not believe in or care about a home in Palestine, there were other options, of which the United States was the most tempting. I’m reminded of a scene in Mordecai Richler’s novel Barney’s Version, in which the anti-hero’s grandparents, Moishe and Malka Panofsky, come to be interviewed at the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society in Budapest in 1902.
“We want the papers for New York,” says the grandfather to the jaded official.
“Siam isn’t good enough for you?” the official asks. “India you don’t need? Sure, I understand. So here’s the phone and now I’ll ring Washington to tell the president, ‘You short of greenhorns there on Canal Street, Teddy? You need more who can’t speak a word of English? Well, good news. I’ve got a couple of shleppers here who are willing to settle in New York.’ If it’s the goldene medina you want, Panofsky, it costs fifty dollars American cash on the table.”
“Fifty dollars we haven’t got,” the grandfather answers.
“No kidding? Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m running a special here today. For twenty-five dollars I can get you both into Canada.”
To settle abroad, wherever the destination—the goldene medina (land of gold), Canada or Argentina—was expensive. This seemingly unavoidable obstacle moved one of Europe’s leading bankers to devise a scheme of assistance to Jewish immigrants. Baron Maurice de Hirsch was born in Bavaria, into a very wealthy family, whose fortunes he expanded by investing wisely in Turkish, Russian and Austrian railroads. A man of deep social concerns, he saw in immigration a way to change the pitiful condition of Europe’s Jews. In 1891 he created a charity known as the Jewish Colonization Association with an initial capital of 2 million pounds sterling, which he later increased to 8 million.
“What I desire to accomplish,” wrote Hirsch in the North American Review in July 1891, “what, after many failures, has come to be the object of my life, and that for which I am ready to stake my wealth and my intellectual powers, is to give a portion of my companions in faith the possibility of finding a new existence, primarily as farmers and also as handicraftsmen, in those lands where the laws and religious tolerance permit them to carry on the struggle for existence as noble and responsible subjects of a humane government.”
Hirsch’s organization bought land in Canada, the United States, Brazil and Argentina. Argentina was a prime destination, since Hirsch felt that because of the comparatively small population, the officially declared belief in freedom of religion and the reported absence of racial prejudice, Argentina would be a splendid haven for the Jews of Europe. Because of an economic crisis, land was fairly cheap.
The early settlements took place in 1891 in the province of Santa Fe, where the first colony, Moisésville, was founded. Hirsch rejected an offer from the Argentine government to purchase land in El Chaco, an unhealthy jungle area, and instead bought land in Entre Ríos, the so-called Argentine Mesopotamia. This is where my family first settled.
To help the Russian Jews, Hirsch had offered the Czarist government a donation of 50 million French francs, which was turned down because Hirsch had specified how it should be used: to fund Jewish schools of trade and agriculture. However, the government certainly was interested in a plan to remove the Jews from the Russian territory. An agreement was reached by which Hirsch would transport the Jews from Russia and the Russian government would provide them with passports, which until then they had been denied. Hirsch wanted to resettle 25,000 Jews a year; because of the red tape and mountains of misinformation, only 2,500 Jews settled in Argentina in the first year.
My grandfather was then a young man, still an adolescent, and my grandmother even younger. How exactly they managed to become part of Hirsch’s scheme I don’t know, but in 1907 they found themselves in Constantinople, ready to board a steamer that would take them to that unpronounceable, faraway place, Buenos Aires. My grandfather had worked on a country estate and knew a little about farming, so when he was asked to name his profession, he declared he was a “farm labourer,” which in Argentina means gaucho.
The colony in which my grandparents settled was in the province of Entre Ríos, a fertile land between the rivers Paraná and Paraguay. It was called Colonia Clara and it had been founded in 1908, the year they arrived in Argentina. Colonia Clara comprised three agricultural villages and functioned very much like a small Jewish state. Schuls were built in the style of the locals, and orange groves, with a fair number of cattle for which Argentina was famous and which the new settlers rounded up with cries in their native Yiddish. Soon the Jewish settlers began to dress as the gauchos did, in baggy black trousers, wide belt that on festive occasions was decorated with coins, white shirt and sleeveless black jacket, kerchief and brimmed hat. The diet also changed: tzimmes became puchero, latkes turned to crusty bread, and meat entered their regular diet in spite of kosher restrictions, either as barbecues of the whole animal (asado) or steaks (churrasco). Mate replaced Russian tea. No matter where they had originally come from, all immigrant Jews became known as Russians, the rusos.
Intellectual life emigrated as well. Either in the colony itself or in large urban centres such as Buenos Aires and Rosario, Yiddish newspapers flourished—Der Vogenblatt, Di Pampa, Unzer Vort—as well as important presses (these only in the cities), where much of the early twentieth-century Yiddish literature from around the world was published. Jewish theatres sprang up everywhere. My grandfather, always interested in world affairs, would read the papers out loud to my grandmother. Years later, when she was living with us in Buenos Aires, we took her to see Fiddler on the Roof and she recognized the plot as the stories of Sholem Aleichem, which my grandfather had read to her from Unzer Vort.
The colony had its heroes. The young son of a recent immigrant couple had been sent, after much parental sacrifice, to study in Buenos Aires, the big city. The boy had lived in the back room of his uncle’s house and dutifully attended school, until one day his uncle announced that he could no longer keep him, since he was selling his business. Desperate to finish his studies and ashamed of returning home defeated, the boy asked for assistance from the president of the Republic, Irigoyen himself. He walked over to the Presidential Palace, somehow got through the guards and, just as he was about to go into the president’s office, was arrested by the custodians. Since these were the days of Russian terrorism worldwide, and the threat of nihilists and anarchists was in everyone’s mind, the young man was threatened with prison. Neither his looks nor his accent spoke in his favour. As this was going on, President Irigoyen happened to ask what all the commotion was about and, upon being told, ordered that the prisoner be brought to him. The boy explained his situation. Sensing a wonderful opportunity for good publicity, which presidents everywhere always seem to need, Irigoyen ordered that a scholarship be set up to help this “courageous young Argentinian” in his endeavours. News of the boy’s achievement travelled all the way to my grandparents’ colony, and my grandmother told me that from that day onward, the family was treated with the respect owed to those blessed by fate. The boy became known in Colonia Clara as “the president’s scholar.”
Other heroes had less limpid reputations. A certain cattle rustler and con man, famous for having stolen cattle from the local judge and then sold them back to the judge’s brother-in-law, and for having literally won the shirt off the rabbi’s back in a poker game, was known to the community as Shmilkel the Gaucho. Imbued with nineteenth-century Russian political ideas, Shmilkel was also an anarchist philosopher and sometimes, during a holdup, he lectured his victims on the evils of private property. Shmilkel came to a sad end: he was shot down in the street of another colony by an outraged chicken farmer to whom he had sold a machine that could reportedly collect and box eggs and instead turned the farmer’s profits into a vast un-kosher omelette.
The intellectual hero of the Jewish settlers was a writer by the name of Alberto Gerchunoff, who celebrated the immigrant life in a book of short stories that quickly became a classic of Argentine literature: The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, published in 1910. Gerchunoff’s parents, like my grandparents, were among the early immigrants who travelled from Russia to Argentina at Baron Hirsch’s expense. Gerchunoff was six years old when his family settled in the newly founded Colonia Moisésville: a few years later he moved to Entre Ríos, to the Colonia Rajil, not far from my grandparents’ Colonia Clara. In 1895 he settled in Buenos Aires and became a writer and journalist, describing life in the colonies in many books, from his autobiography, published in 1914, to My Country, Entre Ríos, in 1950. He was one of the leading journalists of his time and worked for many years for the newspaper La Nación, a paper that still claims to be the country’s most important daily. One of the members of the editorial board at the time was a violently anti-Semitic Hungarian countess. One day she came across Gerchunoff in the paper’s offices and stopped him with a question: “Gerchunoff,” she said. “I hear you’re Jewish?” Without missing a beat, Gerchunoff answered: “Yes, madam. And whenever you wish I can put the proof in your hands.”
Gerchunoff wrote several other books, but The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, a wonderful series of snippets of colonial life, is his most famous. Less short stories than anecdotes, and less anecdotes than nostalgic sketches, the book is a kind of family album. One of the sketches opens as a Jewish gaucho is praying in his room on a Friday evening. Suddenly he hears a thief climb in through the window and then escape with the silver candlesticks. Outraged, the gaucho’s wife comes in and berates him for not having done anything when he heard the thief. “I tried,” says the good man. “I tried. I told him he mustn’t break the Shabbat but he took the candlesticks all the same. May God forgive him.”
The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas portrays a community dislocated and reassembled, held together by the imagination of a tradition and the common bond of being persecuted. In the new Eden of the Argentine landscape, they return to ancestral customs now tinged with exotic features, new senses and new vocabularies. They fall in love with gentiles and follow the laws of their adopted country. They succeed and they fail, sometimes on their own terms and sometimes on terms borrowed from their neighbours. They must, in a profound sense, be translated into the other place that fate and Baron Hirsch have allowed them, and their small, everyday avatars constitute the bulk of Gerchunoff’s book. The Jewish gauchos are, in the eyes of their fellow Jews, gauchos, and in the eyes of their fellow gauchos, Jews. Wherever and whoever they are, they continue to be displaced.
Not everything was idyllic in the colonies. Life could be hard, prejudice still existed, anti-Semitism made its grotesque appearance here as everywhere. The Jewish gauchos were accused of not assimilating, of preferring their own kind to their gentile neighbours, of not helping non-Jews, of being inefficient farmers, of being dirty, of being dishonest, of engaging in petty trade in the cities. Writing in 1926 for the American Geographical Society, the sociologist Mark Jefferson, in a report titled “Peopling the Argentine Pampa,” was moved to declare: “Direct observation . . . shows that the Jews are personally just as clean as the [locals] about them, while their houses are cleaner. No doubt numbers of them have been true to Jewish instinct and left their farms for trade in the cities, and there have aroused intense hostility and gained much business by selling for much smaller profit than other tradesmen.”
“Jewish instinct”—this is the undying notion, whatever it might actually mean, that made a fellow student accuse me, almost fifty years ago, of having a father who “liked money.” Over the clichés, the labels and the prejudices, the assumed identity of my ancestors—of these Jewish gauchos—casts its ineffectual moving shadow. They were willing to adapt to the new land, to start over yet again, to be something that would not seem foreign to others. In that, as in the foreign land of Egypt so long ago, they sadly failed.
Click to read about The Jewish Gauchos Legacy: a film that recalls Argentina’s immigrant colonies