The sleepy town of Moisés Ville, tucked away in a rural corner of Santa Fe Province, was once one of the country’s first and most important Jewish agricultural colonies.
Midday sits like a haze over Moisés Ville, Argentina – shop doors close, windows creak shut. There is not a motion outside save the pack of dogs that guard over Theodor Herzl Street. The library is shut today; it will likely stay shut tomorrow. The museum guide, a middle-aged woman whose children have since left the former Jewish colony for jobs in Buenos Aires and Rosario, is unsure where the librarian has gone, so she opens the building.
Like so many of the surrounding buildings, Moisés Ville’s library is picturesque, harking to a golden age that seemingly exists now only in the rows of history books. Despite the cold that permeates every inch of the space, the large dusty shelves of books in Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian, paint a picture of the cozy intellectual retreat the library must once have been. On the central tables, bestsellers and recent releases are spread out. My guide brings a new one home, replacing it with last week’s read: “We get about 80 new books each year. Pretty good for a small town.”
Today, nearly all the books are in Spanish, though a considerable number of texts remain in Hebrew. The texts in Yiddish collect dust as the population that still speaks the historic language dwindles to a few dozen. Bertha Epstein, born in Moisés Ville in the early 20th century, has not spoken Yiddish since the death of her parents nearly 30 years ago. But the remaining members of her generation can remember a time when the town’s most important organisations, from the agricultural cooperative to the local governing bodies, were all run in Yiddish. The decades since mark a world of change for the small town of 2,500 residents – Moisés Ville’s boarded homes slowly wither into ruin, a relic of Argentina’s once booming Jewish agricultural colonies.
When Moisés Ville was founded in 1889, it was composed of a few Eastern European Jewish families. Their trips were funded by Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonisation Association (JCA), but their disorganised arrival parallels the tale of the Puritans arriving in the United States, stranded in an unknown land with little knowledge of farming and hostility towards the existing inhabitants. The story goes that the founders were left in the middle of the Argentine countryside after a long trip from the port in Buenos Aires. Much to their dismay, they were expected to farm and build by themselves, and survived thanks to the generosity of a few Italian immigrants living on farms nearby and the leadership of Rabbi Aaron Goldman. Plaques in the Moisés Ville museum pay homage to these folkloric heroes, neatly constructing a linear story of struggle into prosperity. Yet this only underscores the disconnect between the memory of the place and the almost apocalyptic emptiness of its present-day sidewalks.
Moisés Ville was not the only colony of its kind, but it remains one of the most iconic for Argentine and international Jewish tourists alike. The JCA sponsored the emigration of over 20,000 colonists from the late 19th century to early 20th century. At the same time, the nation-building project in Argentina was well underway after Julio Argentino Roca’s violent territorial conquests of the 1880s and the new country’s white European elite found a useful labour force in the Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and, later, the rise of Nazism.
JCA’s colonists were also one of many immigrant groups mobilised to push indigenous Argentines out of their land, by murder, displacement, theft of resources, and the constant threat of all three. Ushuaia is a city famously constructed for the purpose of establishing a homogenous nation even in the territory’s most isolated parts, and it is a stark example of the extremes colonisers would go to in their conquest of the territory now know as Argentina. Yet the slow-moving, grassy plains of Moisés Ville, in the province of Santa Fe, were the site of just as much pain and misery for indigenous people. It is a history that early colonist Bertha Epstein unabashedly defends: “there were savages here, and then we came and brought civilisation.”
Yet unlike much of Argentina, Moisés Ville has little history of confrontation between immigrants of different backgrounds. In fact, Jews and Christians got along so harmoniously that the town’s only existing church was a gift from the JCA. The massive theatre, library, and bank, all Eastern European Jewish institutions, are now decorated with Israeli flags and dust.
Today, Moisés Ville’s Jewish residents seem acutely aware of the fading relevance of the town’s cultural centres. Jews make up 200 of the 2,500 inhabitants, and many are no longer religious: only two of the town’s four synagogues remain in use. The town has turned itself into a museum, transitioning functioning buildings into memorials, incorporating empty edifices into guided tours. Despite the new wave of immigrants from other countries in Latin America, Epstein bluntly remarks, “Everything has a beginning, middle and end. That’s the way it goes. Moisés Ville is at the end.”