MOISES VILLE, ARGENTINA — MOISES VILLE, Argentina-This was a most improbable destination for a congregation of 19th-century shtetl Jews, people born to oppression under the Russian czars in a place called Podolia. In 1889, they fled to Argentina on a German ship called the Wesser, 136 families, 824 people, including one rabbi. After much suffering, they built this town in the ocean of grass that is the Argentine pampas. Against that vastness Moses Town is almost lost, like a flea on the hide of an elephant.
But it's on the map, small as it is. Some maps, anyway. You come upon it after 10 punishing miles over a dirt road off the main highway through northern Santa Fe province. Its difference is immediately manifest: There are three synagogues here; there used to be four. The iconography of Judaism is on every side: Stars of David adorn the bank, the town theater (the Kadima); they proliferate in the cemetery.
The street names are unexpected, too: State of Israel Street, Theodore Herzl Street, Baron de Hirsch Street. There is an academy for teachers of Hebrew. Last year it graduated 50 students.
You can buy strudel in the bakery on the plaza, an exotic treat in this part of the world. Or, if you are lucky, you might see a Jewish gaucho ride through. Not that you will notice any difference between him and any other sort of gaucho. If you do the actual work of raising cattle in Argentina, you are perforce a gaucho, one of the last true cowboys who more than any other figure incubates the spirit of the wild pampas; this, even if your ancestors were Russian Jews, Germans, Swiss, Italian, Welsh or English.
So what engendered this diverse mix of nationalities? The emptiness of the land, for one thing, and the government's attempts to deal with the problems raised by that situation, for another.
Argentina encompasses 1 million square miles - four times the size of Texas. Even today, some would argue that it is underpopulated, with only 36 million people. To make matters worse, about a quarter of that number live in the capital, Buenos Aires. In 1890, it was worse still: There were only about 3 million Argentines.
To remedy this, a law was enacted in 1876 to stimulate immigration from Europe. Italians, Germans, English, Welsh, even Swiss came to farm. In 1881, during the period of the pogroms in Russia, President Julio A. Roca specifically invited the Jews to Argentina.
The people on the Wesser arrived with contracts for farmland in Buenos Aires province, but that deal fell through, leaving them stranded in the capital. They were helped by Jews already there, a nucleus of about 1,500 that was to grow into the current population of about 300,000 Argentine Jews.
Other land was leased in Santa Fe province, and the immigrants went there by train. When they arrived in a hamlet called Palacios, after the dodgy character they made the deal with, Don Pedro Palacios, no one was there.
Desperate, they took to begging in the train station. Most of the families drifted away, to small towns, or back to the capital.
In that first year, 1889, disease (typhus, most likely), bad food and little of it, cold, heat, lack of medicine and medical care caused the deaths of more than 60 immigrant children. So devastating was this loss that when the national and provincial governments were eventually roused to assist these people, the first edifice they built was the cemetery.
When they came to dedicate their new town, only 50 of the original families remained. They called it Moises Ville. Don Pedro Palacios, invited to the ceremony, asked why. Because, said Rabbi Aaron Goldman, "Moses took the Jews out of penury in Egypt, and conducted them toward their own country. We, too, after having left Czarist Russia and arrived to a free Argentina, feel the same as our far-off ancestors, in this place that will be our country."
Moises Ville flourished. The settlers grew corn, wheat, alfalfa and sunflowers. They raised cattle, formed what was possibly the first agricultural cooperative in Argentina and saw other colonists imitate them.
They named their first synagogue after Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the wealthy Jewish philanthropist who helped the people of Moises Ville acquire clear title to the land leased from the devious Don Pedro. Baron de Hirsch, born in Munich, was a major figure in Jewish life in the 19th century. He purchased land in Canada, Brazil and Argentina (1 million acres here) and helped his co-religionists flee to the New World.
They built the theater, a Hebrew library and a museum to record their history, and published newspapers in Yiddish and Spanish. They took in refugees from later turmoil in Europe. Adolfo Blumenthal escaped Germany with his father in 1939 and found the "tranquil life" working the land. "I lived 39 years in the country," said Blumenthal, 70. "There is nothing outside the country."