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Argentina's Jewish Gauchos Cling To A Vanishing Past

First Posted: 09/30/11 05:55 PM ET Updated: 11/30/11 05:12 AM ET

Argentina Jews

When Jews faced poverty and persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe over 100 years ago, many boarded a steamship and headed to sparsely populated Argentina, which at the time had launched a worldwide campaign to attract new immigrants.

A Jewish city came to life.

Thousands of Jews poured into the country, settling in small colonies near Buenos Aires they made their own – they built schools, synagogues, cemeteries, etc. They became farmers on fertile land called Domínguez, Sajaroff and Basavilbaso – all in a province called Entre Ríos – and lived off of trading food and animals.

Slowly, the Jewish gauchos, or cowboys, began moving away and dying off. Today, only an abandoned shadow of that ancient life remains.

While there were thousands of Jews just decades ago, only 400 Jewish gauchos remain.

Now there are abandoned synagogues that haven’t been inhabited in decades; ancient cemeteries that nobody visits; many buildings and homes over a hundred years old sit decaying and empty. The once rich cultural centers – filled with theaters, cinemas and galleries – have vanished.

Only two synagogues are operational.

The few gauchos that remain, most descendants of settlers, say they worry what will happen when they die off. They say there will be no one to look after the rich history of this Jewish settlement once they are gone.

“We worry about the future of this cultural heritage,” said Mario Matzkin, whose great-grandfather was a coal merchant and whose ancestors abandoned the area to seek higher-paying jobs in larger cities. “We are old, and there will be no one left to take care of it.”

The History

This story of the Jewish cowboys dates back to 1891, when the steamship Pampa arrived to Buenos Aires with 817 Russian Jews and Eastern Europeans, fleeing poverty and persecutions in their homelands.

In August of that year, under the direction of Baron de Hirsch, some 3,000 square miles of land were purchased in various parts of the Argentine Republic. His plan was to bring Jews to this country as agricultural settlers. Basavilbaso, a newborn city that came to life with the railway in 1887, welcomed these people.

The Jewish settlers knew nothing about farming, but learned quickly.

“When (my grandfather) came to Argentina, he knew nothing about agriculture. He was a trader, as were many other immigrants who came with him,” said Don Enrique Salomón, 78, a ranch auctioneer and one of the few colony descendants who still lives there. “…But he felt alive. He could send his kids to school and he could practice religion with his family, all things that were forbidden in Russia, where he came from.”

The Little that Remains

Only one synagogue, in downtown Basavilbaso, remains, and it has services only once a month. Other colonies have a temple, but it’s only open once a year.

Villa Domínguez’s Museum of Jewish Colonies preserves what little is left of their history. It contains old dishes, photos, furniture and many other relics of days past, when the area was a vibrant Jewish settlement.

“We are working everyday to improve this museum,” said Osvaldo Quiroga, director of the museum. “Many Jewish people, descendants of these old colonists, are living all across the world, even all over Argentina. When they come to visit us, they are moved by the things they see.”

He said he still receives artifacts from days past.

“Part of this heritage increases every day with their generosity,” he said. “We want to maintain this memory for future generations.”

Teresa Sofía Buscaglia is a freelancer based in Buenos Aires.

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Filed by Cindy Y. Rodriguez  |