Remembering The Jewish Gauchos of Argentina
By Steve North
It is the sweetest of childhood memories. “My grandfather used to visit us each year, and since he raised bees, he brought a big can of honey,” says Pola Gordon. “My mother used to mix the honey with chocolate, and we would have a big bowl of it on the
table, with spoons lying there. Everyone who passed by took some. And let me tell you,” she laughs, “it tasted wonderful!”
Pola, 84, now lives in Tamarac, Florida, but the scene she describes occurred annually in the city of her birth, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her grandfather Gregorio, however, lived nearly 200 miles north in the province of Entre Rios, where he was a member of one of history’s most exclusive clubs: “Los Gauchos Judios,” or, “the Jewish gauchos.”
The story begins in 1887, when the only son of a prominent German-Jewish banker and industrialist named Baron Maurice von Hirsch died. Hirsch responded to a sympathy message with the sentence “My son I have lost, but not my heir; humanity is my heir.” Already well-known for his charitable contributions, he devoted the rest of his life and much of his considerable fortune to philanthropic activity.
Chief among his concerns was the increasingly desperate situation of his fellow Jews in Eastern Europe, especially in Czarist Russia. Persecution in the form of violence, official discrimination and expulsions was ramping up, and Hirsch devised a unique scheme. He founded the “Jewish Colonization Association”, which would send European Jews to newly created agricultural communities in the U.S., Canada, pre-Israel Palestine, and especially, to the Argentine Pampas.
“Argentina at that time was looking for European settlers,” says Edna Aizenberg, Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Marymount Manhattan College, “and the Jews needed to get out. There were huge, barren, largely unpopulated tracts of land in Argentina where only ‘gauchos’, or cowboys, lived.” It was an unusual but convenient match.
Aizenberg, who formerly lived in Argentina and is an internationally recognized expert on the history of the Jewish community there, says Baron von Hirsch’s unique idea was, for a time, successful. “The Jews established all kinds of institutions, such as schools, libraries and synagogues. They were instrumental in the agricultural cooperative movement in Argentina.”
And so, in 1906, Gershon (Gregorio) Pecheny abandoned his furniture factory in his small Ukrainian town, where he and his family feared for their lives, and arrived in the village of Pedermar in Entre Rios with his wife and five children. He changed his name to Gregorio, became a farmer, and fathered six more children.
Pecheny joined thousands of other Jews who had been merchants, musicians or peddlers in Europe, who spoke Yiddish, and who were far more familiar with knishes than empanadas. Despite initial conflicts with the native gauchos, the Jews were eventually accepted by them, and the two groups began to share each other’s cultures. Jews learned Spanish, some gauchos picked up Yiddish, and the spirited gaucho lifestyle gained a kind of popularity among the Jewish colonies in Argentina.
Pecheny’s son Mathias was just six months old when the family arrived in South America. When Mathias became a young adult, he, like many of the second and third generation, decided to move to Buenos Aires where he met his his wife Elena (whose parents had immigrated toBuenos Aires from Romania). “They went to the big cities to seek a better education, and to become professionals”, explains Professor Aizenberg.
Mathias and Elena’s daughter Pola was, therefore, born in Buenos Aires in 1930. Until the age of 13, she only knew about life on the Pampas from her parents’ stories, and the visits of her grandparents. But then she spent a week herself in Entre Rios on her grandparents farm.
“It was strange, coming from a big city,” she recalls in her still-strong Argentinian accent. “I had never been in fields before, fields of corn and other vegetables. And they had cows and horses, walking around free outside the house at night!”
Despite the romantic rural images, “life was very hard for them,” says Pola. “One of their eleven children, a little three-year-old girl, drowned in a pond. Of the other ten, only two stayed in Entre Rios; the others all wanted to go to universities, so they left for Buenos Aires, one by one. Some later went to Israel.”
A century after their heyday, the settlements of the Jewish gauchos are largely gone. A few synagogues and schools remain, but many of the Jews sold their farms back in the 1950s and abandoned the fields for a more cosmopolitan life in Buenos Aires or Cordoba. The very first Jewish agricultural colony, Moises Ville, in Santa Fe province,still exists. It once boasted 5,000 residents. Now, there are 2,000, only 200 of whom are Jewish.
Pola Pecheny Gordon left Argentina in 1957, emigrating with her husband, two children (later she had a third child born on U.S. soil), and her parents to New York City. She moved to Florida in 1984, and was widowed five years ago.
Looking back at her family’s fascinating history, Pola has immense respect for the sacrifices made by her grandparents. “They were very ‘valiente’, brave,” she says. “They had a choice, to live, or to die. They left their home in Europe and came to Argentina. They chose to live.”