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The Crimes of Moisés Ville: A Story of Gauchos and Jews

The long echo of a massacre on the Argentine pampas, and the multi-generational chronicle of Jewish life in its wake

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(Photos by Javier Sinay)
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***

On the wintry night of July 28, 1897, as the colony’s social situation got more tense and as Mordechai Reuben Hacohen Sinay’s delegation struggled against the limits of the JCA (Jewish Colonization Association) in Paris, a group of horsemen arrived at the door of Joseph Waisman’s house, near Moisés Ville.

A Russian family lived there, with four children born and raised on Argentine soil—the youngest, just 22 days old. The brick homestead set in the middle of the countryside now seemed small. This was also where Joseph, who looked older than his 30 years, ran a store.

The lead rider knocked on the door and waited, holding his breath.

Five years before, Joseph Waisman’s father had made the decision to leave Kamenetz-Podolsk with his family: Froim Zalmen Waisman was his name, and he feared for his four sons and his grandchildren. It was well known, in the time of the tsar, that Israelites bore military service as a special burden, after an 1827 law that had set their draft age up to 25. The tsar thought that was the only way to forcibly assimilate the foreign population, and he had organized a special force of khapers or official kidnappers who would steal away children and send them to be raised in youth battalions.

Influenced by the Argentinistas who spread through the shtetls—and knowing well the experience of Poles who had left from the same city—in 1892 old Froim Zalmen boarded a ship and left behind the tsarist cruelties. He brought his wife and three children with him, and he sent his oldest son, Joseph, with his wife Gitl and their three children, on another ship. In addition to trunks, suitcases, and baskets of food, Froim Zalmen brought a quilt that he requested special attention be paid to and from which he refused to be separated. Some weeks later, the Buenos Aires port workers would be surprised by the care this man would lavish on his quilt—little did they know that among the feathers were gold bars: Froim Zalmen’s return on the sale of his wheat mill in Kamenetz-Podolosk. Now all of his fortune and future were here.

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When he arrived to Moisés Ville, his name converted into “Fermin Salomon” by immigration officials, the old Waisman met up with some of his former Russian neighbors. With his gold savings, he opened a store in Moisés Ville and helped his son Joseph to set one up just down the country road leading to Palacios. Waisman’s son lived some years there in that brick home, where he also had the store, and where he heard rumors about the colony’s founding and the hunger in the railway warehouses. It had all happened right there, in Palacios, in a recent past that nonetheless seemed distant. After they opened the two stores, they carefully wrapped and buried the leftover gold bars, to be used later.

So things went. For a time.

***

But the night of July 28, 1897, did come, unrelentingly, irreparably.

“That was a haunting night. The drunks came looking for wine … and my grandfather Joseph didn’t want to open the store to them,” says Juana Waisman, daughter of Marcos (Meyer) Waisman, one of Joseph Waisman’s children.

That boy, Marcos—then 8 years old—was lucky: He was with his brother Bernardo (Bani, 10 at the time) in his grandfather Froim Zalmen’s house, in Moisés Ville, where they went to school. They were the oldest of seven siblings and the only family members not at the store when the “savage, evil, criminal people” arrived, as Marcos’ daughter Juana tells it. Of all the people I could speak to, she had been closest to the events: She was 95 when I visited her in a nursing home where she spends her days—a manor where the wood floors creak and the old people are surprised to see visitors, a few miles outside the center of Rosario, the largest city in Santa Fe province.

Juana had not read “The First Fatal Victims in Moisés Ville” (a 1947 report on the crimes), but she wasn’t surprised to hear from me that Mijl Hacohen Sinay wrote two pages—not a small section— on her and her family’s case, which had visited the deepest horror on the colony. “When night fell, the head of the family, Joseph Waisman, was about to close the store, while his wife, Gitl, was putting their four children to bed in one of the rooms,” wrote my great-grandfather.

The oldest of them was a child of 13, and there were two female twins, and a 6-year-old boy. After Waisman had closed the door he heard a loud knocking outside. He then went back to open the door and he saw some gauchos rushing in and was immediately stabbed in the heart. When his wife heard his screaming, she raced to the store from the bedroom, and the gauchos also stabbed her in the chest. The woman fell to the floor and bled there, in agony.

The next scene took place in the other room, where the gauchos killed the children. The oldest brother tried to stop them, but in an instant he had been dragged to the floor and his body was cut to pieces. The two girls were shot in their beds, and then stabbed in the heart and their throats cut. While the gauchos were caught up in the massacre, the smallest child silently stole from his bed, out of the house, and hid in the fields of tall grass.

When the massacre was complete, the gauchos robbed everything and disappeared without a trace. The neighbors found out about the incident the next morning. There may have been shouts, screams, and cries for help during the tragedy, but no one had heard anything, because the seven houses that made up the community of Palacios were separated by considerable distance. This is why none of the neighbors heard the victims’ calls. When the inhabitants of Moisés Ville went to Palacios—all together: adults, old people, children, women—as soon as they got wind of the tragedy, and saw such a pathetic sight as what they discovered in the Waisman house, they all fell to lamentation, men and women alike.

The place, like the small store, looked like a pogrom. Everything the gauchos hadn’t taken was strewn across the floor, broken and shattered, mixed with the blood of the lifeless bodies of husband and wife, with their terrible faces. The bedroom was worse, a butcher shop. The floor and windows where the children slept was covered in blood. The quilt was soaked. The oldest boy was on the floor, his body destroyed. The twins were like two slaughtered chickens, thrown onto their bed and painted in their own blood.

The victims were taken to Moisés Ville, where they were buried in the cemetery. During the funeral, cries and hysterical tears reached the heavens, from men and women who couldn’t resist fainting.

The tomb where the Waismans are buried is the longest of Moisés Ville’s cemetery. You might think a giant was buried there, but in reality the father, mother, daughter, and son were laid head-to-toe in a straight line. For some reason they are not in section 5, where the assassinated were traditionally buried, but instead in the older section, No. 6, where they occupy grave plot 6 in row 2. More than 120 years later, the Waisman grave has become a reference point—sometimes as a tourist stop: “Past the long grave,” say those who want to indicate directions.

But the stone still tells a poem of fear, brief as a haiku, in Hebrew: “Here lie the blessed/ Herr Mordechai Joseph son of/ Froim Zalmen his wife/ Gitl daughter of Moshe/ his sweet daughter Perl/ his son the boy Baruch/ who were killed by the hands of assassins.” (“Waisman” does not appear on the stone: the Jewish names are enough for the final passage.)

***

Now Juana Waisman’s blue eyes—lightly clouded—watch with the calm of a flat sea, while her words carry in their wake a distant resonance of Yiddish—of that same Yiddish that had raised her in an Argentine household where they prayed morning and night.

“They never found out anything,” she says. “There was fear! Because in Monigotes [a town near Moisés Ville] there was a jungle where criminals would hide out, and no one could point them out without risk of death. But everyone knew what was going on. Because those same savages had also killed in another town a cantor. … In those days people were afraid of bandits.”

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The Crimes of Moisés Ville: A Story of Gauchos and Jews

The long echo of a massacre on the Argentine pampas, and the multi-generational chronicle of Jewish life in its wake