The Jewish Pampas

Growing Up in Rivera, Argentina

Written by:
John Marchese
Summer 2016 / 5776
Part of issue number:
Young Vladimiro Rosenberg's passport

For years afterward, Vladimiro Rosenberg’s mother would tell the story of the day she and his father arrived from their native Poland at their new home on the remote and desolate edge of the Argentine pampas in the province of Buenos Aires, a twelve-hour train ride from the cosmopolitan capital city.

“My parents were poor in Europe,” says Rosenberg, who was born nearly eighty years ago in a tiny Argentine farm town called Rivera. “They came to South America in 1938, just before the war. They were twenty-eight years old. An organization called [the Jewish Colonization Society] gave them some land, a few cows, a windmill, some chickens, a shack for a house. And they had to start farming.

“That first night, my mother would always say, it was cold. There was no running water, no bathroom, no nothing. But there was also no going back. Either you survive or you die there. She cried like crazy. She always said that she cried more tears that night than she did for the rest of her life.”

Abisch and Etta Rosenberg were among the last European Jews to be settled in the Americas under the auspices of the French Jewish philanthropist Maurice Baron de Hirsch. From the last decade of the nineteenth century through the first years following World War II, the Jewish baron used profits from his large-scale business enterprises—including construction of the famed Orient Express railroad—to resettle poor Jews on vast tracts of farmland in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the United States. Along with the land, his Paris-based Jewish Colonization Society helped underwrite the cost of travel, farm equipment, and education. 

From the first settlement in 1891, which helped Russian Jews fleeing pogrom violence, until the 1940s, as many as 150,000 predominantly Yiddish-speaking Jews came to Spanish-speaking and overwhelmingly Catholic Argentina. Most eventually left the farm communities and found their way to Buenos Aires. Even today, after decades of aliyah—mass emigration to Israel in the face of mounting anti-Semitism—Argentina still boasts the seventh-largest Jewish population in the world.

The towns created by Baron de Hirsch’s organization, with names like Moisesville and Claraville, were for a time thriving Jewish communities, with synagogues and Yiddish schools, theaters, newspapers, and journals. For the Rosenbergs, after those first cold, teary nights, life got better. “The first harvest, they were very happy,” Rosenberg says. “They’d sown wheat, corn, oats, and sunflowers, and the harvest was very good. Harvest time there is in December, and I was born that month. So my parents were doubly happy.”

Still, the isolation of life in farm country had its challenges. The Rosenbergs learned early on that taking a chicken on the long journey to the shoykhet (the ritual slaughterer who also served as the local moyel) might well mean it would be spoiled by the time they got it home for dinner. For young Vladimiro (his parents gave a hopeful Spanish twist to his traditional Russian name), his early years were insular.

“Until age seven,” he recalls, “I didn’t go to school. I worked on the farm. I didn’t speak Spanish; we spoke Yiddish at home. I hadn’t learned to read or write Yiddish yet. My parents were not very well educated—not because they didn’t want to be but because they were poor. I remember my father would bring home the Yiddish newspaper from town once a week, and he would sit at night and 
read it out loud with my mother. There was no electricity, there was no radio—very primitive. He would read with a kerosene lamp, and he and my mother would discuss what was going on in the stories. That was their entertainment.

“My parents worked very, very hard,” Rosenberg adds. “But my early memories are that it was also wonderful.” At the age of six, he learned to ride a horse, which was a necessity. “We were isolated on the farm. It was twelve miles from town.” Still, for Rosenberg and his younger siblings—Benjamin, born fourteen months after him, and their sister, Felisa, who came along six years later—growing up with a farm as their playground was an idyllic experience. “We would play with the dogs, chase the turkeys and the chickens. It was a very healthy upbringing.”

When Rosenberg arrived in the nearby town of Rivera for his first day of school, he spoke virtually no Spanish. “But of course, children learn fast,” he says. “I [studied] Spanish in the morning and Yiddish in the afternoon. I did very well in school”—well enough that he would later earn a spot in the medical school at the University of Buenos Aires. Rosenberg still can display report cards to prove he earned consistently high marks, though one contains a note from his teacher to his parents reporting that young Vladimiro could improve his neatness. Judging from the orderliness of his medical office on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where today he practices oncological surgery, he took that message to heart.

For the Jews toiling to develop farms on the Argentine pampas, living alongside local ranchers known as gauchos—a south-of-the-Equator variation on the American cowboy—had its challenges. By tradition, the gauchos were horsemen and herders who shunned the more settled life of farmers that the Jewish immigrants had adopted in Argentina. 

Relations were not always cordial between the locals and the newcomers. One day, Rosenberg recalls, he and his father were moving their cows to a new grazing spot when they crossed paths with a gaucho with whom his father had some personal and business disputes and who that day, Rosenberg suspects, was drunk. “[The gaucho] said, ‘Ah, now we are going to settle our accounts.’ He pulled out the whip—the rebenque—that he used on his horse, and he was going to attack my father with it.

“My father put his hand in the back of his pants, like he was reaching for a gun, and said, ‘Keep moving, or I am going to shoot you to death.’ The gaucho moved on. It was a bluff; my father didn’t have a gun. He just had ingenuity.”

Abisch Rosenberg learned to negotiate with the gauchos at livestock sales, but he never tried to adopt the native lifestyle. While his father rarely mounted a horse (he preferred a sulky, a light one-horse carriage), Vladimiro could ride. He learned gaucho folk dances in school and even developed a boyish crush on a gaucho girl. But when Rosenberg was thirteen, he said good-bye to the gauchos and moved to a boarding school in Buenos Aires. A few years later, his father hired workers to run the farm, and the family followed Vladimiro to the capital, where Abisch ran a textile factory and the children had access to secondary schooling and universities.

Rosenberg family small.jpg
The Rosenberg family in Rivera

Although the Rosenbergs eventually moved to the city, there were some Jewish settlers on the pampas who went more or less native, leading to stories of Jewish gauchos. The sometimes poignant, sometimes comic tales of traditional Jewish culture bumping into South America’s cowboy way of life were most famously told by the prolific Argentine Jewish writer Alberto Gerchunoff, a member of an earlier Jewish immigrant farm family whose own father had been killed by a gaucho. Gerchunoff’s Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, a linked series of stories (some perhaps more fanciful than factual), is still in print in Spanish and English translation. Rosenberg recalls being excited to find a Yiddish translation when he was touring the stacks on a visit to the Yiddish Book Center.

By the time the Rosenberg family had reestablished itself in Buenos Aires, Spanish was the daily language spoken by the children. But their parents kept Yiddish alive in the home. “For me,” Rosenberg says, “Yiddish was an enrichment of life. I was reading Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch. It gives you a view of the world, and at the same time, emotionally and culturally, you feel good about your people.”

Eventually, the Rosenberg family moved to Israel, where Vladimiro stayed for only a few years before resettling in the United States in 1972 to train as a cancer specialist. His two children, now both journalists, grew up in New York City and did not learn Yiddish. Not long ago, Vladimiro took his children back to the little town in Argentina where their grandparents had landed on that cold night in 1938.
Rivera is still small, though it has been modernized, with the Argentine version of a superstore and paved streets that didn’t exist when Vladimiro last saw it. Many of the Jewish institutions that bustled in his youth had faded with disuse. “The synagogue in Rivera was beautiful,” Rosenberg says. “I had my bar mitzvah there. When I took my children there it was very emotional. They’ve refurbished it, but it’s empty now—very few people. 

“The Jewish communities—a lot immigrated or became professionals like myself. My sister also became a doctor. My brother became an economist. Not many wanted to continue with the farming.” Rosenberg repeats an old joke told in many of the Baron de Hirsch colonies: “When we came here we sowed corn, wheat, oats, and sunflowers. We harvested doctors and architects and engineers.’

V Rosenberg_small.jpg
Today, Rosenberg is an oncological surgeon in New York. (Photo by Ken Collins)

“My parents liked Argentina very much,” he says. “Were they integrated into Argentina? I would say, not really. They had the Jewish community. And there were farmers’ cooperatives where they would meet other people. But they weren’t Argentines at heart. We [their children] were more Argentine.

“Still today, I read Spanish first of all. I listen to tango all the time. I like Spanish theater. Here in New York I go to Museo del Barrio. Things like that. I still often think in Spanish.” 

But Rosenberg has not been on a horse since he was a teenager. Whatever small bit of gaucho was in him is long gone. Still, thinking back on his days in Rivera, he says, “It was a fascinating life.”

John Marchese is a journalist and author who divides his time between New York City and the former Borscht Belt region of the Catskill Mountains.

Watch an interview with Vladimiro Rosenberg by the Wexler Oral History Project.