Argentina’s Last Jewish Cowboys
Thousands of Jews fled 19th-century Russia for the South American Pampas. Can their unique heritage survive?
Jruz didn’t leave Carmel until he was 12 years old, he said, to attend primary school in Villa Dominguez. “When I was young I worked on the farm with my father and brother,” he told me. “We didn’t have any machinery, and there was a lot of work to be done by hand and with the horses. I chose to stay and help my family.” He recalled poor families and a lack of schooling and traditions that were lost as the immigrants adapted to Argentine food and ritual.
When I met Eleodoro Padlog, 82, president of the Villa Dominguez Cooperative for Drinking-Water, at his home the next day he echoed a common complaint that the government had abandoned the region to its fate. A son of Russian immigrants, Padlog is Jewish but not religious. His parents were staunch socialists, and while the family was well-versed in Jewish traditions, they never practiced them at home. Padlog had strong opinions against the government, all of which he said can be credited to growing up in a cooperative environment.
While the region to is still considered the “bread basket” of the nation, he says, rising costs have forced land ownership from the hands of small holders to those of industrial producers. A push in the Peronist 1950s to turn Argentina into an industry-based economy led many Jews to sell their farms and buy homes in Buenos Aires. Today there is little incentive to stay in the area, where weak infrastructure is left to rot.
Padlog blames the government, which he says has done little over the past 50 years to help the farms that were suffering. “Investment has been focused primarily in Buenos Aires for decades,” he told me. “For more than 35 years the colonies have been paying to keep the local hospital in good maintenance” through the Sociedad Sanitaria Israelita (Israelite Health Society). In 1975 the hospital came under the control of the provincial government, and according to Padlog the services it provides have been waning ever since. He also railed against high taxation and the post-military state that birthed extreme corruption, anti-Semitism, and an ever-unstable peso. Relating an anecdote from an Uruguayan friend, Padlog summed up his view of the country’s problems: “God created Argentina like a paradise, but his mistake was putting Argentine people on it.”
For 56-year-old Jorge Kohon—a father of three teens, and an executive member of the Jewish Association of Villaguay, a town of about 48,000 close to the colonies—the end of the century-old Jewish agricultural experiment in Argentina is near. “We are the last generation that will work on the land,” Kohon told me in the headquarters of the association. “Our kids will be doing other things. Our hope is that these traditions will be upheld by our children in bigger cities where more Jews have flocked and still have strong religious convictions,” such as Córdoba, Rosario, and Buenos Aires, where more than 80 percent of Argentina’s estimated 300,000 Jews live today.
The effort to maintain cultural memory of this unique Jewish community is centered in the Museo y Archivo de las Colonias, or Jewish Colonies Museum, in Villa Dominguez, which was founded in 1985. Housed in a former pharmacy and containing the world’s most complete collection documenting the immigration of Jews to Argentina, the museum is overseen by Osvaldo Quiroga, 48, who has held the curatorial position for nearly three decades. Quiroga was born in Villa Dominguez but didn’t hear much about the immigration while growing up. He left the colonies to pursue his studies in 1982 and returned shortly after. He took the job at the museum out of what he said was a necessity—he needed a job, and they needed a curator. But after 28 years, his emotions run deep.
“I’m not Jewish, but I feel close to the Jewish history because of the people in the town,” Quiroga told me as he began thumbing through a drawer in the museum’s archives. “My grandfather was one of the men who helped teach the people how to work the land they received.” He pulls out a document for me to see; typed out in English, the form is dated April 1, 1905, and promises 183 acres of land, seeds, livestock, furniture, and equipment for 6,031.30 pesos—travel expenses to the Lucienville colony included. Students attending school in the colonies and in nearby towns, such as Villaguay, are now required to pay a visit to the museum before graduation, and in the last few years groups from as far as New York and Israel have come looking to learn about this footnote to Jewish history in the Americas.
As we walked the museum together, Quiroga explained that all the contents were donated by community members, willed to him by those who have passed, or inherited from colonies that have disappeared. The main room of the museum is simple but wide, with high ceilings, and almost all the objects lay uncased. I peered at relics such as glass perfume bottles that made their way from Russia to Argentina, wedding photos, and ponchos worn by the original gauchos. An illustration of a man with a long beard, side curls, and a brown woolen coat over a poncho hung on the wall above a collection of clothing. I couldn’t help but picture him riding swiftly across the Pampas on horseback, rounding up his cattle, and then ending his day with a bowl of kreplach.
Quiroga brought me to a corner of the museum and pointed out a collection of long picks and strange contraptions with hooks, buckles, and other odd additions. I was able to make out a rusty old rifle in the bunch, but most of the pieces were foreign and all of them weathered or permanently caked in dirt. I asked him what they were. He told me they were the farm tools given to the Jews who first broke the land; those who became Argentina’s cowboys.
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