Documentary elicits the pathos of Yiddish Argentina

buenos aires | It took the directors nearly 10 years to complete the documentary “Legacy,” and by the time they had, many of the 200 aging “Jewish gauchos” interviewed for the film had died.

Those deaths contributed to the emotional atmosphere permeating the theater in Buenos Aires recently when the film had its commercial release.

The 72-minute “Legacy” was produced by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and is based on a concept by the group’s co-founder, Baruch Tenembaum. The documentary tells the story of 820 Jews who escaped the pogroms of czarist Russia in 1889 and landed in Argentina aboard the steamship Wesser.

In Argentina, the film received an extended ovation, and screening and hugs were exchanged in the audience, where comments in Yiddish could be heard.

Vivian Imar — who directed the picture along with Marcelo Trotta — said she was moved most deeply while making and watching the film when she heard Yiddish being spoken.

“I am interested in the film work that has to do with memory,” she said. “During the process, I felt close to my grandparents’ history — three of them came from Russia to Buenos Aires. Hearing the Yiddish meant so much.”

Upon arriving in Argentina, these Russian immigrants, who later became know by some as “Jewish Gauchos,” settled in Entre Rios, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires, where they founded colonies with the aid of European Jewish philanthropist Baron Hirsch.

Deep religious values, an intense cultural life and a focus on educating their children suffused the immigrants’ daily struggle to tame the inhospitable brushwood.

Though it tells a serious story, the film is funny at times and the camera often comes to rest on the gauchos’ wrinkled faces, lined with stories of courage.

Renowned artists and intellectuals, such as the Argentine Yiddish actress Shifra Lerer, performed at the colonies’ communal centers. The cooperative farms they built became models of that mode of living in Argentina.

In “Legacy,” Lerer tells the story in Yiddish of a woman who arrived in the colonies on the Wesser when she was just 10 years old. By film’s end, the audience has been introduced to five generations of her descendants as they visit the colonies to mark Yom Kippur.

For some in the audience, the film’s use of Yiddish meant a trip back to their childhoods, surrounded by grandparents telling shtetl tales, complaining because they couldn’t sleep, and gossiping about their families.

Among the crowd at the release were other Argentine Jews who have endured great hardship: people who survived the bombings of the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994, and the Israeli Embassy in 1992.