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Moises Ville: The Home of Jewish Gauchos

In the Jewish shtetl of Kamenetz-Podolsk in the Podolsk Gubernia, in what is now Ukraine, the townspeople made a decision to leave. The Czarist Cossacks were getting dangerously close. A pogrom was feared. They would leave the cemetery, the land, the buildings and their past. If they stayed, the chances were they would never leave - alive.

They pooled their resources. With the help of an Argentinian bank in Paris, they bought land sight unseen in the Province of Buenos Aires. They would become farmers. They would own property. They would stop being afraid - they were Jews. On a rainy morning on August 12, 1899, aboard the ship SS Wesser, 870 men, women and children landed at Buenos Aires harbour to begin a new life.

Rabbi Goldman, with his silver hair and long beard floating in the wind, carried the Torah over his right arm down the gangplank, followed by the Hebrew teacher and the townspeople. Life would be as God had intended. What they learned was the land purchase had fallen through. They were given their money back and told to return.

An offer was made to sell them land in the Province of Sante Fe, and the pioneers bought the land and took a train to Palacious Station, arranging to be met by a guide who would take them to the promised land. He never showed. For two months the townspeople lived in two metal sheds alongside the tracks, begging food from passengers on passing trains. Those who adhered to the kosher edit, suffered more. Without food, potable water or medicine, 67 children died. Unable to bury them in caskets, the bodies were placed in empty oil drums to be buried later.

Two Italians, residents of a nearby colony heard of their plight and offered to take them to their land. With a plough pulled by an ox and followed by a horse pulling a long flatbed carrier, the group made their way to nowhere, carrying the oil drums containing the remains of their children with them. When they arrived, they opened a clearing in the brush and set up tents. That evening, illuminated only by fire and as the sun set on the horizon, the men placed their talles on their shoulders and under the stars of their new home, they prayed.

They named the settlement Moises Ville. The Italians learned how to cook kosher food and to speak Yiddish. The Jews learned to become farmers. Life in the colony was hard. Even dangerous, but they persevered. Sante Fe Province was the birthplace of a new breed of Argentine cowboy, the Jewish gauchos, who introduced new crops. Jewish immigrants learned to ride, herd cattle, shoot and shelter themselves against the elements. Their need to help each other made the community strive and grow. It took years to carve out of nothing, something worth cherishing. The land was harvested, the streets marked, the houses built and over time what was barren desolation became a thriving community. They crested the first agricultural cooperatives, built Temples and schools, a hospital and an Opera house. Moises Ville became a Jewish town. There was even a native Indian who spoke Yiddish. The children and grandchildren earned university degrees and the community prospered. The saying in Moises Ville was: "We sow wheat and harvest doctors."

And then Colonel Peron, a staunch admirer of Adolph Hitler. He slowly instilled nazi-fascist ideology among the soldiers. Until his overthrow in 1955, the life that the pioneers of Moises Ville had fled from had come to them, and over the subsequent years the Jews of Moises Ville began to leave. A house is more than a house when it becomes a home. A street is more than a thoroughfare when it becomes a neighbourhood. What they were leaving was a past that had taken its toll in suffering, in lives and memories.

There are about 250 remaining from about 5,000. Of the four synagogues, only one is being used. Slowly the Italians have purchased the buildings and the land. The Jewish gauchos no longer ride the plains. A people who came to find themselves a place to live in peace, have sown their seeds, grown the fruits of their love of land and friends, and moved on.

"Returning for a visit is like a treasure chest that once opened is unending because there is a part of us all in there," Dr. Juan Kazneitz said. "I return every so often to heal myself," Pablo Birenboim said. "I feel renewed and will definitely come back, again." Martha Levisman said, "The town has always provided me with a sense of relief and comfort from Argentina's big cities, where there is anti-Semitism."

Gladys Rothman was born in Moises Ville. Gladys great-grandparents were among the founders. It was her desire that the history of the town not be lost, and her hope that through photographs and a future video, to capture the purity of being Jewish in Argentina.


New Generation: 2001