From the cover of “The Murders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South America” by Javier Sinay
From the cover of “The Murders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South America” by Javier Sinay

‘The Murders of Moisés Ville:’ A Jewish disaster in 19th-century Argentina

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Although Argentina has long housed the largest Jewish population in Latin America, Jews in the United States tend to know little about this community. Part detective story, part family history, “The Murders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South America” — by Buenos Aires journalist Javier Sinay — offers a compelling path to learn more.

Although there had been a small Jewish presence in Argentina for centuries, a striking expansion took place in the final two decades of the 1800s. As Jews were seeking ways out of an increasingly calamitous existence in the Russian empire, the Argentinean government was actively welcoming foreign immigrants to help populate its rural interior.

Moisés Ville has its roots in an 1889 effort by a group of Jews from what is today Ukraine to emigrate and become farmers in Argentina. Their experience was disastrous — one fraudulent land deal led to another terrible one, and the starving immigrants were left to fend for themselves while languishing for months in the sheds of an isolated train station, where many died of typhus.

The cover of “The Murders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South America” by Javier SinayFortunately, knowledge of their plight reached the European philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. In 1891, he formed the Jewish Colonization Association, which would develop agricultural colonies in rural Argentina for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The JCA purchased land, funded infrastructure and helped with the immigrants’ travel. The largest town among these developments was Moisés Ville, located about 400 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. (Moisés is the Spanish rendering of Moses.)

One of the early residents of Moisés Ville was Javier Sinay’s great-great-grandfather, a rabbi who had brought his family from Grodno, in today’s Belarus, in 1894. In the aftermath of a failed revolt he helped lead against the JCA’s administration, Rabbi Sinay relocated his family to Buenos Aires.

Javier Sinay had little knowledge or curiosity about his forebears until he was sent a lengthy article that Rabbi Sinay’s son, Mijl, had written in 1947 about the many brutal murders that had occurred decades earlier in the JCA’s colonies — primarily cases of Jews dying at the hands of gauchos and bandits.

Javier soon embarked on a quest to learn about these 22 forgotten murders that Mijl had chronicled — a quest that would also result in a better understanding of his own family’s past. (Read an excerpt here.)

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Researching the murders would be no easy feat, partly because of a lack of source material left behind by the region’s Jews of that era. Javier posits that, accustomed to insecurity, “if the community would have to strike camp again someday, there didn’t seem to be much use in sitting down to record history.”

Another obstacle was that some of the materials that would have shed light on the story were destroyed in the 1994 terrorist bombing of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires that was home to most of Argentina’s Jewish organizations. That horrific attack claimed 85 lives and destroyed many of the community’s archival holdings.

In addition to his archival research, Javier made numerous trips to Moisés Ville. Today’s town is a shadow of its former self, and Jews, who formerly constituted the vast majority of its residents, are small in number and mostly elderly.

Interviewing a wide variety of Moisés Ville residents and descendants, Javier tried to get at the details of the murders, and also to figure out some of the discrepancies among Mijl’s article, government records, and various written and oral accounts, with a sensitivity to what factors the varying versions might reflect.

While this search for facts is interesting, if sometimes gruesome, what helped animate this unusual book for me was Javier’s own journey. Some of his personal involvement reflected the affinity he felt for his great-grandfather Mijl as a fellow journalist. It turns out that Mijl had created Argentina’s first Yiddish newspaper, the hand-lettered “Der Viderkol” (“The Echo”), which he launched in 1898 in Buenos Aires.

And the Yiddish language would play a significant role in the book-writing process. As Javier notes, “almost all the documentary sources I might wish to turn to in order to follow the trail of the crimes of Moisés Ville have been written in Yiddish.” Having had no experience of the language beyond a few of his grandmother’s sayings, he began taking courses in Yiddish, which both helped him find pieces of the puzzle and enabled him to develop a relationship to a rich legacy that he had not considered his own.

Noting that “I’m the perfect heir to four generations who’ve been shedding off religiosity as if it were the old clothing brought from Russia,” he even attended Friday night services for the first time. But most strikingly, in visiting and interviewing generations of Argentinean Jews, he began linking his own life to theirs. As he writes, “I know now: the crimes of Moisés Ville hold within them, like Pandora’s box, the secrets to my own history and Jewishness.”

“The Murders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South America” by Javier Sinay; translated from Spanish by Robert Croll (Restless Books, 288 pages, March 29 publication date)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.