Argentina’s Last Jewish Cowboys
Thousands of Jews fled 19th-century Russia for the South American Pampas. Can their unique heritage survive?
In Villa Dominguez, one of the largest remaining settlements at a population of 1,800, things are a little livelier. Here the buildings are painted in bright colors, and there are two public schools, a library, bars, gas pumps, a clinic, a grocer, several butchers, and a police department with a force of five officers. A small one-story synagogue with a dance hall for social events sits near the center of town. Locals have taken to calling Villa Dominguez the “Paris of Entre Rios” as the streets have been laid out to look like the Place de L’Etoile with the town’s agricultural coop and community fund replacing the Arc de Triomphe. Stand-alone displays branded with “SHALOM” point out famous landmarks within the handful of blocks that make up the town. I was told Villa Dominguez was once a major hub for Jewish life, and though the area felt distinctly Jewish, signs of human life were scarce. The only sound drowning out the chirping birds was the crunching gravel beneath my feet when I walked.
I headed first to the home of Elias Stavsky, an 84-year-old retired farmer who lives with his brother in Villa Dominguez. Stavsky, like many of the elder residents I would meet in the area, did not look his age. He wore thick-framed glasses, combed his hair with a side part, and left the top few buttons of his shirt undone to reveal a deep tan, looking more like a fresh retiree from Florida than a Jew who had been doing back-breaking farm work for 75 years. His home was simple and sparse, filled mostly with basic, metal furniture. But atop a large mahogany bureau were a number of family photos and small souvenirs, including a tiny gold trinket engraved with two Stars of David and the word Jerusalem.
Stavsky grew up on a farm that was given to his grandparents by the Jewish Colonization Association in the Leven colony. He worked the fields with his seven brothers and sisters and recalls a devastating plague of locusts and days spent milking cows. Religious life was active when he was a child, but he also remembers when things started to change. “When I was a boy, there was a synagogue in every community. We always respected Sabbath when I was younger,” he told me in Spanish with an accent hinting at his Slavic roots. “As time passed it became more difficult. I remember we would have go to different communities just to find enough men for a minyan.”
Until just four years ago, he lived on the Leven farm, which had belonged to his grandparents, but he had to leave because everyone in the colony had either died or moved away. “There was once more than 3,000 people in the colony,” he said. “They all took to the road. Everyone. I was the only one left. I had to leave.”
Neighboring Carmel, where Jruz lives, is also depopulated and can no longer be found on many maps. The hamlet is accessed through a wide dirt road flanked by tall stalks of maize, and only a few houses remain in good repair. Most of the people previously living in smaller settlements like Stavsky’s and Carmel left for more populous areas in nearby towns. Jruz told me the 1950s were particularly unkind to the colonies, and tens of thousands left for Israel and the United States in fear of President Juan Perón’s Nazi sympathies. According to Osvaldo Quiroga, the director Villa Dominguez’s Jewish museum, today there only 30 Jews remaining in Villa Dominguez and only about 20 Jewish families still living on farms in the province—almost all of them elderly.
Back at home on the farm that was given to his grandfather over 100 years ago Jruz is packing things away into his shed after a morning spent tending to his animals. There are tools everywhere, dogs running around, his tractor is parked under a tree, and many of the structures on site are the original ones built by Jruz’s grandfather. Upon finishing his morning routine, Jruz offered to show me some of Carmel’s important landmarks. We jumped in his truck, and he took me down a long and bumpy road, stopping at a graveyard, not too far from his home, enclosed by bright white brick walls and a large black Star of David painted above its entrance.
The small synagogue that sits beside the cemetery was erected in 1923 in the middle of a grassy plot; it is the same one Jruz’s parents and grandparents used to visit every Saturday to pray. When the community was thriving in the 1920s and 1930s, he says, more than 100 people would attend the temple’s Friday night Shabbat services. Today, the synagogue only opens for Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement when an officiant travels from Buenos Aires to conduct services.
The cemetery itself is quite spectacular, filled with hundreds of graves, each one mapping the history of the colony over the past hundred years. On one end are tombs pre-dating 1900, which are sealed with corrugated metal roof, a material the settlers used when they didn’t have enough stone for construction. On the other end, are tombs marked with beautiful marble sculptures and hand-painted ceramic photos of the dead. The oldest grave is dated 1894 and bears the name Nusimovich Bernardo. All of the graves look east toward Jerusalem.
Jruz recalls celebrating Sukkot by building little cabins from weeds; a young girl came by to teach his family prayers. “My mother stayed true to all of the Jewish traditions, and she always respected the Sabbath,” he told me. “Every Friday night she would light candles and cry.” He also remembers a community where Jewish plays were performed and big parties hosted more than 50 families and musicians from across all of the colonies. A sulky or horse-drawn carriage would arrive at each home, collecting men, women, and children for a night of music and dancing. He lamented that there is nothing like that in the area today, and he feels saddened by what has been lost after all the sacrifices made by his ancestors.
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