Diario Judío México - The charms of Entre Ríos, a northeastern province of Argentina, are more modest than those of Patagonia’s snow-dusted peaks or the waterfalls at Iguazú. Its rural culture is founded on old-fashioned etiquette, stirring folk music and bountiful nature. It also has an important place in Jewish history, as it was once the home of thousands of east European Jews who escaped the pogroms and came to farm here in the 19th century. Close to Buenos Aires, it also makes a great short break from the Argentine capital.
An hour’s drive will bring you to Zárate, where two 500m bridges boldly span the almost impossibly exotic Paraná river. The river teems with fish identified only in Guaraní, the region’s indigenous language; they have yet to earn names in Spanish, let alone English.
Conquistadores sailed up the Paraná as early as 1537 on their way to establish their first South American colony, at Asunción, now the capital of Paraguay. Two centuries later, they laid out Entre Ríos’s cities as a defence against Portuguese incursion.
But Entre Ríos’s fortunes were really transformed by the toil of 19th-century European immigrants as millions of Europe’s poor were lured by the promise of unlimited land and unfettered immigration laws.
Unlike those thrust together in Buenos Aires’s tenements and shanty towns, settlers in Entre Ríos – largely from central and eastern Europe – set up homogeneous colonies, where they nurtured mother-country traditions alongside the culture of their new neighbours. Even today, local radio stations broadcast in German, Polish and Russian.
At Villa Eleonora, the station master presented me to his children, each of them blond-haired and blue-eyed. The fastidiously kept hamlet, clustered around a one-platform railway halt, was settled by Germans, colonists who first populated Russia’s Volga region in the 1760s, subsequently seeking more fertile land in the New World.
From 1888, Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia also began to head for the New World as part of a mass emigration experiment orchestrated by Parisian Jew and railroad owner Baron Maurice de Hirsch.
Hirsch bought vast tracts with the aim of organising Jewish farming colonies. The great bulk of his holdings, an astonishing 600,000 hectares, lay in Argentina, where 40,000 Jews eventually lived in more than 200 settlements. Once there, the newcomers set about adopting the language and customs of rural, Catholic Argentina while preserving their Jewish heritage, a challenge eloquently described in Alberto Gerchunoff’s The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, a collection of short stories published in 1910 about the author’s childhood in Argentina’s Jewish settlements.
Russian Jews began to arrive in Entre Ríos in 1895, founding an extensive network of farming colonies. In their heyday, the most successful settlements boasted synagogues, Yiddish-language schools, public baths, and cultural centres that played host to touring theatre troupes from Europe. Basavilbaso, a town once populated by Russian Jews, has a statue of a menorah in its main square and its three synagogues minister to the 700 Argentine Jews who remain.
It was also the home of a much-mythologised figure, the Jewish gaucho. The house of León Borodovsky, Basavilbaso’s most famous gaucho – “He wore the tallith [prayer shawl] and poncho with equal style,” says the town’s tourism official Juan José Britch – has been a museum since Borodovsky died in 1997.
Not all the settlements prospered. “In eastern Europe, the Jews weren’t allowed to own land,” says Britch. “When they arrived here, they had no experience of tilling the soil or working with horses. They came from the cold Russian steppe to a land of subtropical heat, of insects, summer hail and burning sun. They found it hard to adapt.”
With disease and starvation rampant, Basavilbaso’s immigrant children began to drift to larger provincial towns. The third generation, Britch tells me, resettled in Buenos Aires; the fourth emigrated to the US or Israel.
At Colonia Novibuco No 1, once Basavilbaso’s busiest farming community, just four Jewish families work the soil. The simple synagogue, containing ceramic lamps and a torah brought from Russia, stands locked and unused.
Perhaps the most poignant reminder of Basavilbaso’s past is the Novibuco cemetery, where hundreds of settlers lie beneath gravestones inscribed with the Star of David. The tombstones are dwarfed by the vastness of the Argentine plain that stretches unbroken from the cemetery gate to the faraway horizon.
Among the Hebrew inscriptions and Stars of David in Basavilbaso’s Jewish cemetery stands a statue of what at first sight appears to be a German army officer. In fact, the bust marks the grave of Jacobo Rosquín, an Argentine Jew who served under Lt Colonel Juan Perón in the 1940s when the Argentine military was equipped by the German Wehrmacht. Rosquín’s died in 1945. Shortly after, Perón, newly appointed president, presented the statue to the town as a gift it would have been unwise to refuse.
Fifty years later, Rosquín’s German-uniformed bust is still among Basavilbaso’s Jewish graves, staring out across the Pampas.