The Mur­ders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South America

Javier Sinay; Robert Croll, trans.

  • Review
By – March 28, 2022

Moisés Ville is a small, remote Argen­tine vil­lage, some six hun­dred kilo­me­ters north­west of Buenos Aires. Today, as Javier Sinay describes in his intrigu­ing blend of his­to­ry, true crime, and fam­i­ly mem­oir, it is a dusty rem­nant of a once-thriv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, where in the last cen­tu­ry there were four syn­a­gogues, an active teacher edu­ca­tion cen­ter, and numer­ous oth­er Jew­ish institutions.

How Moisés Ville (or Moi­se­vishe, as it was called by its inhab­i­tants) came to be regard­ed as the Jerusalem of South Amer­i­ca and why it declined are part of the com­plex sto­ry Sinay weaves out of the frag­men­tary doc­u­ments he uncov­ers, the many peo­ple he speaks to, and above all, the writ­ings of his great-grandfather.

The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Argenti­na is the sixth largest in the world. Sinay’s main thrust is uncov­er­ing the truth behind near­ly for­got­ten trag­ic deeds that occurred over a cen­tu­ry ago in this com­mu­ni­ty. The sto­ry, as Sinay dis­cov­ers, is as much the sto­ry of his fam­i­ly as it is the unrav­el­ing of a com­plex his­to­ry of a remote town. And it is also his own sto­ry, he finds.

In the 1890s, a group of Jews from East­ern Europe were drawn to this remote South Amer­i­can place under dubi­ous cir­cum­stances. After ini­tial trau­ma and suf­fer­ing, the sur­viv­ing pio­neers man­aged to found a thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed by Baron De Hirsch’s Jew­ish Col­o­niza­tion Asso­ci­a­tion that then attract­ed oth­ers. Its sub­se­quent his­to­ry is shad­owed, how­ev­er, by dark deeds — a series of mur­ders of the Jew­ish set­tlers — that marred the flour­ish­ing com­mu­ni­ty in Moisés Ville. Why the killings occurred and how many exact­ly hap­pened are part of the mys­tery Sinay tries to uncover.

Sinay was spurred to his quest when he came into pos­ses­sion of writ­ings by his great-grand­fa­ther Mijl (Miguel) Haco­hen Sinay, about whom he knew lit­tle. He learns that his ances­tor was a jour­nal­ist, teacher, and archivist for the Argen­tine branch of YIVO, of some note in his day. Mijl Sinay devot­ed many years to doc­u­ment­ing a series of crimes that afflict­ed Moisés Ville at the turn of the last cen­tu­ry and pre­serv­ing the his­to­ry of the place where he spent a few years of his youth. His father, Rab­bi Morde­jai (Mordechai) Reuben Haco­hen Sinay, was one of two rab­bis in the town in the 1890s. After a falling out with local offi­cials of the JCA, Morde­jai Reuben and his fam­i­ly left town and moved to Buenos Aires. Mijl became the founder of the first Yid­dish news­pa­per in Argenti­na. But the pull of the town was strong for Mijl, as well as for Javier.

Lit­tle by lit­tle Javier comes to under­stand what Moisés Ville stood for and the sig­nif­i­cance of the mur­ders his great grand­fa­ther attempt­ed to doc­u­ment. In the process, he reclaims some of his family’s lost Yid­dishkeit and reforges con­nec­tions to branch­es of his fam­i­ly. The con­clu­sions Javier comes to about the events in Moisés Ville under­line the ways his­to­ry is a ques­tion of per­spec­tive and con­text. When he wrote about the mur­ders in Moisés Ville in 1947, Mijl Sinay was memo­ri­al­iz­ing the vic­tims of the Holo­caust as much as the vic­tims in turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Argenti­na, just as Javier Sinay’s book memo­ri­al­izes his great-grand­fa­ther as much as it tells the sto­ry of this once-thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ty and its mixed past of dark and light.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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