Baron Hirsch and the Jewish cowboys


Did you know that one of the largest philanthropic experiments ever launched by a single individual was Baron Hirsch's sponsored large-scale Jewish immigration to Argentina?

Typical image of Jewish gauchos (cowboys) from the early days of the settlement in the Argentinian countryside, wearing the traditional clothing of the region. 

Very recently I discovered some new details about how my mother's side of the family ended up in Argentina at the end of the XIX century. Until now I didn't even know there were records available. This article was written thanks to a small research I did while trying to find out some more information.

In March 1881, the murder of Czar Alexander II led to a policy of persecution and pogroms against Russian Jews that attracted attention worldwide and generated a wave of Jewish emigration, mostly to North America.

By the 1880's however, Argentina was in a stage of fast economic and industrial development that required new settlers, for which President Julio Roca signed a decree to promote Russian Jewish immigration to the country. At this time, only approximately 1,200 Jews lived there, many of them of Sephardic origin.

On August 14, 1889, the ship Weser carrying 120 families from Ukraine arrived in Buenos Aires, marking the date of the first organized Jewish immigration in Argentina. But when the passengers disembarked, their original plan fell apart and the families were left abandoned and with nowhere to go. This is when Argentina appeared in the map for Baron Maurice de Hirsch.

Hirsch's grandfather, the first Jewish landowner in Bavaria, had been ennobled in 1818 and for generations his family occupied a prominent position in the German Jewish community. He himself built the first railroad network of the Ottoman Empire, where he witnessed first-hand the poverty and hardships of his fellow Jews.

In 1882 Hirsch offered to fund a chain of schools for the Jews in Russia. The Russian government was willing to accept the money, but declined to allow any foreigner to be involved in its control or administration, so the project was dropped.

When a report about the situation of the stranded Jews in Argentina reached his hands, Hirsch resolved to devote the money to an emigration and colonization scheme which would allow the persecuted Jews opportunities for establishing themselves in agricultural colonies outside the Russian Empire. Thus in 1891 he founded the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), which began to buy land in the central province of Entre Rios, and to select emigrants to settle in the new colonies.

These were to be given the opportunity to own their land, although this was not a gift, as they were required to pay for it, just as they were required to repay all the loans in kind received during their transfer through to their first harvests, as well as the corresponding interest. Hirsh's ideal was that Jewish economic self-sufficiency and rehabilitation should be based on productive work and not dependent on traditional charity.

The first two groups of immigrants consisted of 232 and 334 persons respectively. A third group was chosen in Istanbul, where several thousand Russian Jews lived in deplorable conditions, having been refused entry to Palestine. From these, 818 arrived in Argentina in December 1891. Among them was my great-grandfather, Gregorio (Herschel) Fingerman, who arrived in Entre Ríos with his family as a baby.

A few years later, in 1895, Theodor Herzl started his own campaign to resolve the "Jewish Problem" by establishing a Jewish state. He managed to meet with Hirsh in Paris, but didn't get his financial support. While for Herzl the answer to the problem was a political one, for Hirsh it was a humanitarian issue. They never met again since Maurice de Hirsch died a year later. But the JCA continued to function until the 1970s.

The JCA's original project consisted in transferring to Argentina 25,000 Russian Jews during 1892, and in the course of 25 years 3,250,000 Jews were expected to immigrate to the colonies. However, insurmountable logistic difficulties and the realities of rural life in the Argentinian countryside, a place Hirsch never visited and therefore didn't know, very soon curbed the original ambition of the project.

The Jewish Genealogical Society of Argentina documents a total of 8,521 immigrants who came to be colonists in Argentina between 1889 and 1902 (95% of the total arrived in this period) and the colonies never had more than 33,000 inhabitants, with many original settlers and their children leaving for the cities (among them Gregorio, who as a gifted student was sent to a school in Buenos Aires, staying with an older sister who had already left years before).

From this point of view, JCA's plan is seen by some as a failure. However, if the main objective was that of maximizing the possibilities for Jews to escape Russia and reach a life of dignity in Argentina, it could be definitely considered a success.

News of Baron Maurice de Hirsch's project put Argentina in the imagination of many Russian Jews and triggered spontaneous immigration to the country independently of the JCA by people who would never have done it otherwise. On the other hand, colonists encouraged the immigration of relatives, friends and neighbours through letters and through their reports in the main Eastern European Jewish newspapers. Gregorio's father, Ysrael David Fingerman, was among these correspondents, writing about agriculture for the influential journal Hazefira, published in Warsaw.

Picture of Yisrael David Fingerman dedicated to his grandchildren. By this point he had replaced Yidish for Spanish as his main language.

"Los Gauchos Judíos" by Alberto Gerchunoff, avaliable in English as "The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas", a series of vignettes about shtetl life in the Argentinian countryside first published in 1910.

If we add to this the news about the immigrants who left the colonies towards the nearby towns, especially to Buenos Aires (where both of my parents were born), it is possible to assume that the work of the JCA generated a significant flow of information by which many other immigrants came to the country to become the core of the Argentinian Jewish Community, today one of the largest in the world.

Regardless of the fact that in the long run most colonist didn't stick to this lifestyle for more than a few generations, the image of the "gaucho judío" or Jewish cowboy, who adopted the customs and ways of the countryside while keeping the Jewish faith and traditions of the shtetl is still alive in the collective memory of Argentinian Jews, and has been described and depicted in books and films.

And despite not reaching his original goal of resettling millions of Russian Jews in Argentina, the initiative of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, also known as the "Moses of the Americas", still remains one of the largest philanthropic experiments ever undertaken by a single individual.