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Passover Feature in a Lonely Argentine Town, Ghosts of a Proud Yiddish Past

April 19, 2005
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At the end of a three-hour taxi ride west of the Argentine city of Santa Fe — along a lonely two-lane highway that passes a Wal-Mart, half a dozen meat-packing plants and miles and miles of flat, unchanging wilderness — sits the town of Moisesville. As unlikely as it seems today, the town once was the promised land for the Jews who settled there.

That promise was reflected in the town’s name — it was called Moisesville after the prophet Moses, who led the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt to the hills overlooking the land that would become theirs.

Moisesville was founded in 1889 by a group of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe. It once was the heart of a thriving Jewish gaucho culture that extended throughout the Argentine provinces of Santa Fe, Las Pampas, Entre Rios and Corrientes.

Sofia de Gun, a 75-year-old widow known simply as “Dona Sofia,” is old enough to remember Moisesville when it was still a thriving center of Yiddishkeit.

“This was the first Jewish settlement in Argentina,” she said. “And the first group that came here was led by Rabbi Aaron Goldman. He said that like the Jews who made the exodus from Egypt, coming to Argentina was like Moses entering the Promised Land. That’s why it was decided to name this place Kiryat Moshe. There was a Frenchman among them who translated it as Moises-Ville.”

That and other details of the town’s history are chronicled in painstaking detail at the Rabbi Aaron H. Goldman Jewish Colonization Museum, housed in a downtown building constructed by the Brener family in 1911.

For years, Jewish farmers worked the land, raised livestock and established agrarian cooperatives. At its peak, the shtetl supported four synagogues, a public library with 20,000 books and even a Yiddish theater that attracted such stars as Molly Picon from Europe and the United States.

But life was hard, and young people — lured by educational and business opportunities elsewhere — left Moisesville as fast as they could. Synagogues gradually lost members and the Yiddish theater eventually closed.

Today, Moisesville is practically a ghost town. Occasionally, tour buses pass through, filled with Argentine Jewish tourists hoping to connect with their past.

“We have 2,700 inhabitants, but only 10 percent of them are Jewish,” laments Judy Blumenthal, a teacher in the town’s only remaining Hebrew school. “At one time, in the 1940s, the population was 5,000, of whom 90 percent were Jews. Many Argentines have roots here.”

Traditions die hard, and even today Moisesville shuts down for two days of the year: July 9 — Argentina’s independence day — and Yom Kippur.

Jewish traditions are so strong here that Theodor Herzl, Golda Meir and Baron Maurice de Hirsch all have streets named after them. In fact, many older non-Jews still pepper their Spanish with words like schlep, shlemiel and even goyim; they grew up hearing those expressions all around them.

Around 2,000 to 2,500 people visit every year, said the museum’s director, Eva Guelbert de Rosenthal. Its five permanent exhibition rooms contain such items as a porcelain seder plate, a brass samovar from the 16th century, Russian passports issued to Jewish refugees in 1905, a Moisesville license plate from 1926, a metal coffee can from 1938 and a 50-kroner note from the Terezin concentration camp.

One of the most interesting artifacts is a copy of the 1888 deed showing how local businessman Pedro Palacios bought 100,000 hectares of land, then divided it into tracts and sold them off to the newly arrived Jews for 40 pesos per hectare.

In a nearby glass case, visitors can see household items brought by the Jewish refugees to Moisesville, including crystal bowls, an umbrella, silverware, mezuzot, prayer books and a spice box for havdalah. There are also many framed portraits, including one of Rosenthal’s grandparents, Benzion and Jacinta Aronovich of Byelorussia.

Besides the museum, other points of interest in Moisesville include the Banco Comercial Israelita; the town library, located across the street from Moisesville’s sole Internet kiosk, and the Orthodox Jewish cemetery, which has nearly 2,500 tombstones.

Interestingly, Moisesville’s only church, Nuestra Senora de la Merced, was built with the help of de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association. And although this is often not the case in other parts of Argentina, here Jews and Christians seem to get along with each other.

“We’ve never had any anti-Semitism,” said Blumenthal, 45. “The gentiles don’t discriminate against us. They invite us to their festivals and we invite them to ours.”

Blumenthal, who has 35 children in her Hebrew classes, said that only one of Moisesville’s synagogues, Baron Hirsch, is still in use. The others have fallen into disrepair. About 25 to 30 people come to Friday night and Saturday morning services, which are led by a local cantor, Luis Liebenbuk.

“There’s not much work here since the mayonnaise factory closed two years ago. But some young people are coming back to Moisesville because there’s no work in the cities,” said the teacher, who has a sister in Fairfax, Va. “We’re hoping someone will invest in a hotel here.”

For now, the few tourists who straggle through Moisesville usually end up staying at the home of Dona Sofia, who lives next to the Brener shul on Calle San Martin. To supplement her monthly pension of 260 pesos, or about $87, she rents out an extra room for 20 pesos a night, including complete breakfast and light afternoon snack.

“Sometimes groups of American Jews come in a bus, spend a few hours and leave,” she said. “But nobody’s come here for the last four months.”

Another elderly Jewish widow, Dora Berenstein, 74, lives in a corner house on Calle Estado de Israel with her two little dogs, Barbie and Leticia. She gets by on 60 pesos a month in food coupons, and 100 pesos a month from the rental of two small apartments behind her crumbling house, which she shared with her husband until his death five years ago.

“I’m friendly with everyone in Moisesville, but the truth is, every day we are fewer,” said Berenstein, who was married for 47 years. “Before, when my husband was alive, we talked about leaving. But now where would I go?”

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