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Arts & Culture the Jewish Gauchos’ ‘legacy’: Film Recalls Argentina’s Immigrant Colonies

October 26, 2004
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It took the directors of the new documentary “Legacy” nearly 10 years to complete the film, and by the time they had, many of the 200 aging “Jewish gauchos” interviewed had died. Perhaps that contributed to the emotional atmosphere permeating the theater here on the evening of Oct. 14, when the film had its commercial release.

The 72-minute “Legacy” — produced by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and based on a concept by the group’s co-founder, Baruch Tenembaum — tells the story of 820 Jews who escaped the pogroms of czarist Russia in 1889 and landed in Argentina aboard the steamship Wesser.

The film received an extended ovation and screening and hugs were exchanged in the audience, where comments in Yiddish could be heard.

Vivian Imar — who directed the picture along with Marcelo Trotta — said she was moved most deeply while making and watching the film when she heard Yiddish being spoken.

“I am interested in the film work that has to do with memory,” she told JTA. “During the process, I felt close to my grandparent’s history — three of them came from Russia to Buenos Aires. Hearing the Yiddish meant so much to me.”

Today Imar, who is Jewish, boosts her 90-year-old grandmother’s spirits by singing her Yiddish songs like “Arum den fair” and “Oifn pripetchik.”

Upon arriving in Argentina, these Russian immigrant Jews, who later became know by some as “Jewish Gauchos,” settled in Entre Rios, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires, where they founded colonies with the aid of European Jewish philanthropist Baron Hirsch.

Deep religious values, an intense cultural life and a strong focus on educating their children suffused the immigrants’ daily struggle to tame the inhospitable brushwood.

Though it tells a serious story, the film is funny at times and the camera often comes to rest on the gauchos’ wrinkled faces, lined with stories of courage.

Renowned artists and intellectuals such as the Argentine Yiddish actress Shifra Lerer performed at the colonies’ communal centers, and the cooperative farms they built became models of that mode of living in Argentina.

At the film’s opening, Imar’s father, Israel, a 69-year-old lawyer, couldn’t hide his pride.

“I feel so emotional,” he said. “My father gave me the torch of being Jewish. I have passed it on to my children, and I can clearly see they have received it.”

In “Legacy,” already shown at several international film festivals, Lerer tells the story in Yiddish of a woman who arrived in the colonies on the Wesser when she was just 10 years old.

By film’s end, the audience has been introduced to five generations of her descendants as they visit the colonies to mark Yom Kippur.

For some in the audience, the film’s use of Yiddish meant a trip back to their childhoods, surrounded by grandparents telling shtetl tales, complaining because they couldn’t “shlufn,” or sleep, and gossiping about their “mishpuchas,” or families.

Among the crowd at the release were other survivors: people who survived the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994 and of the Israeli Embassy here in 1992.

Escorted by bodyguards, Israeli Ambassador Rafael Eldad was reflective as he left the theater

“I think it is important to feel how rich these people were despite their poverty,” he told JTA.

“They had such a deep conviction of their roots, such a stubborn will. They not only have survived. They built ‘kehilot,’ ” or communities, he said, adding that “Today, with so much plenty, we hardly keep in existence.”

Spreading out through the mall after the screening, some among the crowd continued speaking to one another in Yiddish.

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