BASAVILBASO, ARGENTINA — They desperately needed each other. Russian Jews needed a refuge from the pogroms that began in 1881 following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Argentina needed immigrants to colonize the bleak underpopulated pampas.
The go-between was Baron Maurice Hirsch, a Jewish German banker who financed the Orient Express. After his only son, Lucien, died in 1887, he decided to leave his money to needy Jews. "I lost my son, but not my heir," he said at the time.
Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, proposed that Hirsch finance immigration to the then-British African colony of Uganda. But Hirsch disagreed, believing that Argentina offered a more secure future.
The first 828 Jews, including Solomon Borodovsky, arrived in 1889 aboard the steamship Wesser. At the time, only 1,572 Jews lived in Argentina, mostly in Buenos Aires.
The pampas were hardly the promised land. The immigrants suffered periodic droughts, dust and rain storms, floods, and locust swarms that wiped out crops in a matter of hours. Established merchants tried to run the new Jewish agricultural cooperatives out of business.
In 1891, Baron Hirsch and other wealthy Jewish European families created the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) to finance the Argentine agricultural colonies. Between 1891 and 1932, the JCA bought over 1.5 million acres for 9,011 immigrants, according to author Ricardo Feierstein in his 1993 book, "History of Argentine Jews." By the 1920s, 22 percent of the nation's Jewish population lived in rural colonias.
The first colonies had names like Moiss Ville, Leonardo Cohen, Lucienville, and Baron Hirsch. The largest, Moiss Ville, in the province of Santa F had four synagogues, three Yiddish newspapers, two Yiddish libraries, and a Jewish theater.
Today, Argentina has about 250,000 Jews, the largest population in Latin America. Some 85 percent live in greater Buenos Aires with the remaining 15 percent in the cities of Crdoba, Mendoza, Rosario and Tucumn Only an estimated 2,000 still live in rural areas, including 130 Jewish families in Basavilbaso.