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Blog by Dr. Shimon Samuels published in The Times of Israel
11 August 2019

– Where can I buy varenikes? – At the shop around the corner.
– Ah,are they Jews? – No, they are Italian.

This dialogue, at the end of the second decade of the XXIst century, could take place at any major Metropolis in the world, but it is not from New York, Paris, or Buenos Aires. It occurred in a town in the northern Province of Santa Fe, Argentina, which, according to the 2010 census, houses 2425 inhabitants.

This village is Moises Ville.

In 1869, Argentina, a country the size of Europe, had no more than 2,000,000 inhabitants, almost the same today in a city such as Vienna. Governments in the second half of the 19th Century invited the world to come and settle to seek new horizons in this virgin wilderness. By at the turn of the century, the population had already doubled and, after fifty years, doubled.

The call was heard by many in distress who crossed the seas to try their fortune. Many stayed and others returned.

Following the execution of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the living conditions of Jews in the Russian Empire worsened, confined in zones from which they could not leave, with groups of Cossacks committing murder, rape, robberies and destruction defined as pogroms.

In Podolia, today in Ukraine, a group of Jews obtained permission to leave, forced to sign a document allowing them to take with them what they could carry, hand over what they could not and a commitment never to return.

Some 130 families headed to the port of Hamburg, where they embarked on the Wesser steamer, and after a difficult journey, arrived in Argentina in August 1889.

An endless train journey dropped them in a place called Palacios, in Santa Fe, more than 500 kilometers from Buenos Aires. Purchased by Baron Hirsh in Paris as a safe haven for Jewish fugitives, they finally settled, naming the site Moises Ville, the Village of Moses. The leader who brought the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago inspired this group of tattered people with the image of a new Promised Land of Milk and Honey and a promising future.

Despite not knowing the local language, their different religion and customs, their ignorance about working the land, in only two generations they were integrated, building relations with the local population.

Synagogues, schools, cemetery, library, theatre were samples of a cultural splendor never before seen in these territories. Theatre plays in Yiddish were first released in Moises Ville and only later seen on Broadway.

This so-called “Jerusalem of Argentina” gave birth to great men and women who later sought to study and enter professions in large cities in different corners of the country and the world, never forgetting that magical and unique village in north central Argentina.

According to UNHCR, the United Nations Agency for Refugees, there are currently some 30 million migrants who have left their homelands.

In 2012, the Wiesenthal Centre began its campaign to obtain World Heritage status for Moises Ville, to honour its first inhabitants and the land that received them, Argentina, to provide an example to the world of successful refugee absorption and integration, through giving and receiving, thankful for asylum and learning from their new homeland, without intent to alter its customs, thus enriching the host country with their own history, and creating with it a new cultural synthesis. Each year Moises Ville celebrates a “Dia de la Convivencia” (Day of Harmony) with their Italian, Ukranian, native Gaucho neighbours, attended by families of former Moises Villanos from Israel, United States, Europe and across Argentina.

In 2015, we applauded Argentina’s success in bringing Moises Ville to the UNESCO Indicative List to eventually be designated as World Heritage. The candidacy requires rigorous work to achieve this objective, which was endorsed by President Macri in a meeting with the Wiesenthal Centre's leadership.

A professional team must now be employed to develop the Project. 130 years after the arrival of the Wesser steamship, this is a fitting acknowledgment to the passengers and their successes. 

Co-author Ariel Gelblung, Latin America Representative of the Wiesenthal Centre.