Central & South America / Chronological / Destinations

A South American Saga: The Jews of Argentina

Elio Kapszuk is small and wiry. He’s somewhere in his late 40s to early 50s with a shaved head and is energetic to the point of hyperactivity. He speaks Spanish in short excited bursts, so fast that the serene young woman in huge glasses who is translating for him can’t keep up. When she pauses to catch a phrase or find the right word in English, he thinks she’s finished his last sentence. “Okay!” he’ll interject, literally jumping up from his seat and continuing at his shotgun pace.

Elio Kapszuk
Elio Kapszuk


We are sitting in his Elio’s office, up the narrow flight of stairs of a narrow building in a bustling downtown section of Buenos Aires. The neighborhood itself is somewhat rundown, although it is within walking distance of fashionable Recoleta, a few blocks from Avenida de Julio 9, one of the widest of boulevards to be found in any city, and virtually around the corner from the Libertad Synagogue where the American rabbi Marshall Meyer — who took on the military government of the 1970s and 80s and is Elio’s personal hero — came as a twenty-nine-year-old in 1959.

The office mirrors its inhabitants – combustible, disorganized, strewn with books and papers. There is barely room to sit. A few contemporary paintings hang on the walls; many stand on the floor, one leaning against the other. Some are totally abstract; in others, disturbing themes can be detected: searing images of violence, haunting expressions of human suffering. (Later we would learn that Elio is a curator of art shows produced by AMIA, the Argentine-Israel Mutual Aid Association that embraces the many facets of Jewish communal life.)

As he talks, Elio hands us copies of journals, newspaper clippings, books. We can barely balance them on our laps and wonder how we will ever manage to carry them down the treacherous stairway and into a taxi. Yet in the midst of all the chaos, the mission that drives this Argentine-born son of a Turkish mother and Polish father gleams like a beacon: to keep the history and heart of Argentina’s Jewish community alive.

Although he wears many hats, you could call Elio a travel agent; he creates and organizes tours that reflect Argentina’s disparate ethnic groups under the rubric “Cultural Tourism.” But his heart, predictably enough, lies in the story of his own people and in dreaming up tours that document their history in this nation.

One of the more inventive tours took place shortly after the financial crisis of 2001 left Argentina’s economy in a state of freefall and led to a sizeable Jewish immigration to the United States, Israel, and Spain. It also prompted Elio to organize a time-travel trip he called “Home of the Jewish Gaucho” for 34 leaders of the United Jewish Appeal/Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in the United States. “They came here on a fact-finding mission aimed at showing them the Argentine Jewish community is important and should not be allowed to die,” he said.

“Since the original pioneers were all Orthodox, the food was all kosher. A newspaper emulating one from 1904 announced their arrival, what was going on in the community at that time, what the life of the colony was like, what life in other colonies was like. They met some descendents of the original settlers who continue to live in the region. And they came away with an awareness they did not have before.”

Each participant was given a facsimile of a Russian passport of the sort a Jewish emigrant who arrived in Argentina in March, 1904 would have carried, along with a train ticket good for the 124-mile trip from Buenos Aires to a place called the Lucienville Colony. There, for the next two days, these 21st-century well-to-do Americans experienced life as Jewish pioneers in a rural Argentina of that earlier time, learning such essential skills as how to milk a cow. It was a brief excursion, yet one that crystallized for its visitors a singular, although not particularly well-known, chapter in the two-thousand-year-old saga of the Jewish Diaspora.

There had been earlier Jewish immigrants to Argentina, going back to the time the nation gained independence from Spain in 1810 (even earlier, if one counts the Conversos of the colonial period whose descendents number among the oldest and wealthiest in Buenos Aires). Responding to its atmosphere of tolerance marked by an open-door policy and an official end to the Inquisition, Jews from Western Europe, especially France, began arriving in the mid-nineteenth century.

But an organized program of agrarian colonization, such as that represented by Lucienville, did not begin until 1889, after a French-Jewish agronomist, Dr. W. Lowenthal, visited Argentina on behalf of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the first international organization geared to assisting oppressed and impoverished Jews. Recognizing the potential that lay in its vast undeveloped countryside and that the Argentine government was encouraging immigration to develop agricultural industries, he approached Baron Maurice de Hirsch upon his return and presented the Jewish financier with an idea.

The builder of the first railroad linking Europe to Constantinople, the Baron was already benefactor to a multitude of causes and the major underwriter of the AIU. He swiftly took to Lowenthal’s idea of enabling Jews to immigrate to the New World, where they would be settled in rural locales, trained to work the land, and ultimately lead independent and productive lives in a non-oppressive environment. This was a new direction for Jewish philanthropy; the image of Jews as tillers of the soil and herders of livestock was an image the Baron found appealing. He created the Jewish Colonization Organization and began what would become the most ambitious project of his life.

While Lowenthal returned to Argentina to begin arrangements for resettlement, the Baron went to Russia to facilitate the process of emigration. It was not the first time he had negotiated with the Tsar. A previous offer of $10,000,000 to establish Jewish educational facilities had been rebuffed. Now the Tsar agreed to the departure of some of his Jewish subjects on one condition: those who left could never return. Theirs would be a one-way ticket.

By August of 1891, the first group was en route. By the year’s end, 2,850 Jewish settlers had arrived in disparate destinations of Argentina, and the process of colonization was underway. Altogether, the Association would purchase 17,000,000 acres of land in seven of Argentina’s 21 provinces for $1,300,000.

It was not an easy transition. The professionals organizing resettlement did not understand the culture of the immigrants. Adjusting to a new, undeveloped environment and an unfamiliar agricultural lifestyle, coping with such perils of Biblical proportions as locusts, droughts, and floods led many to long for what they had left behind. But the colonies survived. Men who had toiled as shopkeepers and tradesmen became farmers and cowboys. Gradually they were able to purchase the land they worked on and to collectively establish communities, infrastructures, schools for their children, institutions needed to maintain a Jewish life.

Perhaps the spirit of the colonists was best summed up by the prescient Rabbi Aarón Halevi Goldman — a member of the first group of immigrants to the first settlement, aptly named Moisés Ville (City of Moses). “Moses led Jews out of the penuries of Egypt and led them to their own country,” the rabbi said. “After leaving Tsarist Russia and arriving to a free Argentina, we feel equal to our distant forefathers in a place that will be our homeland.”

When Baron de Hirsch died in 1896, the Jewish Colonization Association came into possession of $30,000,000, which allowed it to fund colonies in places throughout North and South America, Cyprus, Asia Minor, and Eastern Europe. The following year, the first Zionist Congress convened in Basle, Switzerland, and within two years, the Jewish Colonization Association was managing colonies in Palestine founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild.

The turn of the last century was a pivotal period for the international Jewish community, one characterized by a swell of new visions, new organizations, and an articulated Zionist dream. The emigration of Russian and then other Eastern European Jews to the Argentine hinterland was but one small part of that larger scene. And while it would never evoke the inspirational response engendered by the image of pioneers of the Yishuv transforming the desert into the fabled land of “Milk and Honey,” it did provide an earlier (and perhaps illustrative) example of how, through an alternate, non-urban lifestyle, Jews in the modern era could be enabled to live a decent life, free of persecution, and enjoy the benefits of their own labor.

Argentina’s agrarian colonies grew through the decades before and after the First World War. Their population was refreshed in the 1930s by an influx of German Jews escaping the Nazi terror. But by the turn of the 21st century, the great majority had left their rural environs for the greater educational and economic offerings of urban society. Today only traces of that grand experiment remain,

Still, testaments to Baron de Hirsch’s dream dot Argentina’s vast landscape in various stages of use, repair, and disrepair. There are synagogues — some still hold Shabbat and High Holy Day services –, cemeteries, street and shop signs in Hebrew and Yiddish, museums filled with artifacts that document a once dynamic Jewish presence, Jewish schools, a library built by a Jewish community decades ago that is now a secular Senior Citizens’ center, a building that reveals its former life as a Jewish bank, a host of cultural centers — some still used for local theatrical productions and school ceremonies. Kadima Hall in Moisés Ville, which — like New Haven’s Shubert Theater — was the last stop on the tryout circuit before a show officially opened (on the Broadway of Buenos Aires), is still staging performances.

Beyond the man-made reminders are the people who never left. Bucho Bernstein from the Palacio Colony in northeast Argentina calls himself “the last Jewish gaucho” and continues to live on and ride the land his grandparents settled in 1900. He is not alone; more than fifty Jewish communities in remote locales still exist.

Argentina was and remains a nation of immigrants. Originally there were the Spanish colonists, then immigrants from France, Italy, and Germans. The longtime open-door policy has brought people from even more exotic locales — witness the sizable Korean population that has materialized since the 1990s. While the first Jews were from Western Europe, beginning around the turn of the last century, the influx increasingly came from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Jewish immigrants created vibrant communities and, at the same time, melded with other ethnic groups into the larger culture. They played a significant role in Argentina’s defining dance. Some of tango’s major violinists, composers, players of the accordion-like bandoneon, and dancers have been Jews. And although the Jews of Argentina comprise only one percent of the national population, they represent the largest Jewish community in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world.

Pablo Singerman
Pablo Singerman


Pablo Singerman numbers among them. The stylish and youthful-looking businessman who handles marketing and publicity for the Club Atléltico River Plate (the Argentine sports club famed for its fabled soccer team), is a third generation Argentine on his father’s side and second on his mother’s. His matriarchal grandparents were jewelers from Aleppo,”where the great majority of the country’s Sephardim came from,” he told us over drinks at the Sofitel Hotel in Buenos Aires. “Technically they are not Sephardim. They have no connection to Spain; they are Levantine. But both groups have the same style of worship and anyway, whether they come from Istanbul, Damascus, Beirut or Aleppo, they are all referred to as ‘Turks.’

“Aleppo is the second city of Syria after Damascus, and Cordoba is the second city of Argentina after Buenos Aires,” he added. “That, according to my grandmother, is why the Jews of Aleppo settled in Cordoba.

“Today it is easy to be a Jew in Argentina,” Pablo said. “Many of the people who left after the economic crisis of 2001 are coming back. Things are better; industries are opening their doors again. And the sense among Jews of belonging is very strong. Many people go to shul on the High Holidays, even if they are not very observant. A Jew can wear a kipa in the streets, go to synagogue: Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. For Passover we have no problem getting matzoh. In supermarkets, we are finding more and more Jewish products.”

He continued, “Traditionally, Argentine Jews — like Jews everywhere — were in the commercial realm: in textiles, jewelry. Studying was not common. A typical phrase of a parent to a child was ‘Come to the shop and help me to work.’

“The child might say, ‘No Father, I want to study.’

“But the father would insist. That began to change with the immigration of Jews with professional backgrounds before and after the Second World War. They enriched the community, provided a new example, demonstrated that Jews need not only work in the shops. So that today, the typical parental comment is, ‘You have to study.’ And Jews are well represented in the professions, hold important positions in government and banking, and the arts.

“At the same time,” he added, “Nazis and their descendents are here. Some live side by side with Jews, but for the most part, they live in the mountains, in small places. There are still a couple of newspapers around that espouse the National Socialist ideology.”

That the nation which so generously opened its arms to Jewish immigration was also a sanctuary for Nazi criminals is a paradox Pablo apparently has accepted as part of the mixed Argentine landscape, a reflection of the volatility of twentieth century political life. Yet while it was no secret that Buenos Aires was the first stop for fascist fugitives on the road to South American obscurity, the dimensions of that emigration process was not known until the recent opening of long-suppressed archives which detail a well-organized operation.

In retrospect, the evolvement of the “rat line” (as it was called) that ran from Germany through Italy to Argentina seems a predictable outgrowth of the right-wing nationalist ethos that had been part of Argentina’s political and military culture going back to the 1930s. Juan Péron had trained in fascist Italy as a young officer and was attached to Mussolini’s army during the early years of World War II. Back in Argentina in 1943, he seized dictatorial powers, and although Argentina remained “neutral” until March, 1945, when it declared war on Germany (a superficial gesture aimed at placating the Allies), Péron used his position to strengthen ties with the Third Reich and develop friendships with local SD agents and pro-Nazi members of Buenos Aires’ wealthy German community.

After the war, the covert “rat line” channeled Nazis to Argentina via a Vatican commission that provided DP papers, an Argentine immigration service in Italy that served as recruitment office, and the Argentine consulate in Barcelona that issued false passports.

With landing permits and fake identities, thousands of war criminals and their families disembarked in Buenos Aires and promptly disappeared. Among them were Joseph Mengele, Klaus Barbie (for some years), and, on July 14, 1950, Ricardo Klement — formerly Albert Eichmann. Had the administrator of the Final Solution postponed his journey for two weeks, he would have landed on the first anniversary of the arrival of Jacob Tsur, Israel’s first Ambassador to Argentina, who — after riding down Florida Avenue in a horse-drawn carriage, past cheering crowds waving Argentine and Israeli flags — was welcomed at Government House by a waiting Péron.

Eichmann, later joined by his family, would live in Buenos Aires in obscurity until one evening in May, 1960, when he stepped down from a bus on the way home from work and was abducted by Mossad agents. His subsequent delivery to a Jerusalem courtroom where he stood trial for genocide galvanized Jews all over the world. But it had particular resonance for those in Argentina.

Just around that time, the Jewish community of Buenos Aires was reeling from a meteor that had landed in its midst. Marshall Meyer, a young American rabbi, had arrived in Buenos Aires the year before. He anticipated a two-year stay, ended up remaining for twenty five years, and left behind a legacy that is remembered and lived to this day.

The son of a well-to-do women’s clothing manufacturer from Norwich, Connecticut, Marshall Meyer had become attracted to Jewish studies as a result of his encounter with a Christian professor of philosophy and religion at Dartmouth College. Not only did Fred Berthold encourage his eager student to consider a career in the rabbinate, he introduced him to Abraham Joshua Heschel when the visionary rabbi visited the campus. Rabbi Heschel became the young man’s mentor and lured him to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he attended rabbinical college and was subsequently ordained. Soon afterwards, though he had never been in Argentina and spoke no Spanish, he accepted the post of assistant rabbi at the venerable Synagogue Libertad of Buenos Aires.

A stately, soaring structure of Moorish design, across the street from the Colon Theater where Toscanini had made his debut, the synagogue had been founded in 1862 and was one of the earliest representations of the organized Jewish experience in Argentina. Yet Rabbi Meyer found its atmosphere stifling. Men and women sat separately, according to Orthodox tradition, and the entire service was in Hebrew — which few seemed to understand. At the same time, an organ accompanied prayers.

In short order, the new rabbi had introduced mixed seating and Spanish translations for parts of the service, which hitherto had been dominated by Ashkenazic worship patterns. He formed a youth group, and together with his wife, Naomi, (who, along with their three children, had come with him on his South American adventure), convinced a number of congregants to send their children to the summer camp he had begun, which combined typical outdoor activities with classes in Judaism.

By the time Eichmann was on his way to Israel, Marshall Meyer had founded a new congregation comprised of Sephardic as well as Ashkenazic Jews, and which was distinguished by its liberal theology and strong commitment to social justice. Temple Bet El would become a model for Conservative synagogues in Latin America and the most well-attended synagogue in Buenos Aires, drawing a thousand people every Shabbat. One of its early public campaigns involved sharing funds raised for a permanent temple home with reconstructing a nearby slum neighborhood.

In 1962, the year Eichmann was hanged, Marshall Meyer began the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, the first non-Orthodox rabbinical school in South America with a class of four students and three teachers. Today it is the center of Conservative Judaism in Latin America, ordaining Spanish-speaking rabbis who assume pulpits throughout the Southern Hemisphere, as well as the United States and Israel. Under its auspices, the first printing press for Jewish texts in Spanish since the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain was constructed. Today, its library of 50,000 volumes houses the most complete collection of Jewish Studies resources in Latin America and draws an international array of gentile as well as Jewish scholars.

With his seemingly inexhaustible energy, powerful sense of purpose and limitless font of ideas, Marshall Meyer had a transformative effect on Conservative Judaism in Buenos Aires. But his greatest challenge did not present itself until after he had been in Argentina for seventeen years, when a martial coup overthrew the weak and final Péronist government (led by Péron’s third wife Isabella), and an oppressive military dictatorship took over the reins of state.

Scenes from Llao Llaro Resort in Bariloche, Argentina
Scenes from Llao Llaro Resort in Bariloche


According to Jacobo Timerman, the Jewish/Ukrainian-born editor of the liberal Argentine publication La Opinion, “The military government . . . arrived with an all embracing arsenal of Nazi ideology as part of its structure.” In such an environment, public criticism met with brutal suppression. Timerman himself, was arrested, tortured, and narrowly escaped execution by being extradited to Israel. But thirty thousand, mostly young, dissidents disappeared without a trace. Ten percent of them were Jews — a significant figure for a group representing only one percent of the nation’s population.

“Six or seven human rights movements existed publicly at that time,” Pablo told us. “The most well known are the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo — one of the first Mothers was a Jewish woman — and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. To this day, you can see them, with the white kerchiefs on their heads, silently walking around the main square in downtown Buenos Aires, seeking to know what happened to their ‘Disappeared.’ More than thirty years have passed since the coup, but they still march — the mothers because they don’t know where their children are, and the grandmothers because they are looking for their grandchildren; about ninety babies were born to the ‘Disappeared’ and given away.”

Instead of returning to the safety of the United States during the seven year-period of totalitarian rule, Marshall Meyer and his family remained in Buenos Aires, where, with remarkable force and courage, he took on the dictatorship. He ran a virtual underground railroad for those being sought by the authorities, hid people in his home, was a regular presence at jails.

The Israeli journalist Tarnopolsky wrote of how Rabbi Meyer would try to confound prison guards to get them to release prisoners to his custody. “He’d say something like, ‘What? You have him? This man is a foreign national! I know his ambassador; just yesterday I gave the man my assurances we are holding no one from his country. Ay Dios, do you have any idea the embarrassment this could bring to Argentina? Que desastre! Permit me to clear this up, discreetly. You won’t get into any trouble. I’ll see to it that he gets deported like a common criminal. Just give him to me, and you won’t have to worry about a thing.’ It is not known how many lives Meyer saved, but it is certainly in the hundreds.”

Jacobo Timerman’s book, “Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number” — which describes his ordeal in graphic detail — is dedicated to Marshall Meyer: “A rabbi who brought comfort to Jewish, Christian, and atheist prisoners in Argentine jails.”

When the nightmare finally ended, Rabbi Meyer (the only non-Argentine named to the Committee for the Disappeared) was presented with the Medal of San Martin, the nation’s highest decoration. The following year, he returned to the United States, taking over the pulpit of B’nai Jeshurun, the oldest Ashkenazic synagogue in New York, and with the same magnetism that had energized his years in Buenos Aires, transformed what had been a poorly attended Upper West Side shul into a dynamic center of liberal Judaism. Nine years later, he died of cancer at the age of 63. But his memory has not dimmed, not in New York, not in Buenos Aires, not even at Dartmouth College where, in 2006, an annual lecture in human rights was established in his name.

Memorial on the site of the Israel Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Memorial on the site of the Israel Embassy in Buenos Aires


Since the overthrow of the junta, Argentina has enjoyed the blessings of a democratic and stable government. Nevertheless, two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires have left the Jewish community stunned and shaken. On March 17, 1992, twenty-nine people were killed by an explosion that destroyed the Israeli embassy on Arroyo Street, just a few blocks down from the Sofitel Hotel. Nearby structures, including a Catholic church, were destroyed as well. A wall from the original building remains as a memorial, listing the names of the every victim.

Two years later, on July 18, 1994, in the worst terrorist attack in Latin American history, a blast destroyed the seven-story AMIA community center building, killing eighty-five people and injuring 300. No one has been tried in either of these cases, although Jewish groups claim they bear the hallmarks of Iranian-backed Islamic militants and accuse Iranian authorities of directing Hezbollah to carry out the attacks.

In the liberal, open environment of 21st century Argentina, one finds no overt evidence of anti-Semitism. As Pablo Singerman said, Jews are found in all walks of life — and all levels as well. The distinguished position of Consul General in New York City is held by Hector Timerman, Jacobo’s son. He was the first recipient of Dartmouth’s Marshall Meyer Award.

And there is a delicious irony to the Jewish story in Bariloche, the traditional entrance to mystical Patagonia, which stretches from the Andes to the Atlantic, from the top of the southern half of Argentina to the bottom of the South American continent. Largely wilderness until its first railroad was built in 1938, this is a region that rivals Switzerland for snow-topped mountains, glaciers, sapphire-colored lakes, and pristine alpine settings. Today, it is a world-renowned tourist destination, with many famous hotels and resorts. It is also dotted with chalets which, according to the locals, were built by fugitive Nazis who arrived after the war. An unsettling preponderance of books dealing with National Socialism fill the shelves of the bookstore at the Bariloche airport.

Among Bariloche’s splendid resorts, none is equal to Llao Llao (pronounced zhaou-zhaou, which means “sweet, sweet” in the language of the indigenous Mapuche Indians). Set across 111 acres of landscaped grounds, it overlooks a pair of splendid lakes and is itself overlooked by triangular-shaped, snow-capped mountains. Among them, a single loftier triangle of pure white emerges from the rest. This is the Tronador (Thunder) Glacier, so called because over the summer, chunks of ice break off and fall into the lake with such ferocity, it sounds like thunder. “To hear the roar of thunder on a sunny midsummer’s day is quite an experience,” said Nora Especto,” Llao Llao‘s front office manager.

Llao Llao Hotel & Resort
Llao Llao Hotel & Resort


We had afternoon tea with Nora on a sunny midsummer’s day in January, sitting on a broad stone terrace, looking out to Lake Nahuel Huapi, a glassy pane that had melded the dark green reflections of cypress and pine trees with the blue of a cloudless sky. Around us were Llao Llao‘s gardens: honeysuckle, holly, lupine, foxgloves, lilies, rhododendrons, azaleas, and an abundance of roses surrounded by clumps of lavender, all at their height of bloom.

“For forty years, this hotel was owned by the government,” Nora, a petite, vivacious brunette, told us. “It drew a crowd of aristocrats, government officials, and foreign dignitaries. Then in 1978 – during the time of the military junta when not many tourists were coming to Argentina — it closed down. The place became neglected and abandoned. Lawns that had been so carefully manicured were wild with weeds, windows were smashed, the interior was ransacked.

“But in 1993, when Argentina had been a democracy for nearly a decade and the situation was much happier, Citicorp came into the picture and bought the property from the government. It was a major investment for them; they brought a management company from the United States to get the hotel up and running again.”

Warming to her story, Nora put her tea cup down, and smiled in a conspiratorial manner. “Four years later, Citicorp sold the property to two Argentine families, the Suttons and the Elsteins. And since then, for a week or so every March or April — which, as you know, is autumn in Argentina — Llao Llao is closed down. A meshgiach (one who certifies all dining preparations are kosher) arrives and makes ready a totally separate kitchen with all manner of dishes, pots, pans, glasses, flatware, and food. Then they re-open the hotel for Passover. Two kinds of seders are held: one Sephardic, the other Ashkenazic. At first, the guests were all Argentine Jews. But now they come from all over the world to celebrate Passover in the beautiful surroundings of Bariloche.”

A sweet-sweet story, indeed. And, at the same time, deeply meaningful, perhaps even emblematic of the story of the Jews of Argentina.

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