The Jewish Community of Resistencia, Argentina
Author of the Historia de los Ashkenazim de Resistencia. Pp. 239. Resistencia: Ibera Editions, 1987. Julio Mazo contributed this article to Beit Hatfutsot website.
The city of Resistencia is located in the Chaco Province in northeastern Argentina, close to the country’s borders with Paraguay and Brazil. Resistencia was founded in 1878 by Italian immigrants who were soon followed by Spanish, Bulgarian, Czech, Yugoslav and other European immigrants, who gradually settled the province. The development of the timber industry at the end of the 19th century and the growth of cotton plantations in the early 20th century attracted an additional work force from other areas in Argentina as well as from neighboring Paraguay, seasonally enlarging the local population. This development brought about an increase in the economic importance of the region and encouraged more workers, businessmen and farmers to settle in the Chaco province, and particularly in Resistencia. The intense economic activity and the many business opportunities it generated were among the reasons why Jewish settlement to Resistencia began as early as the turn of the 19th century. During the 1930s and the 1940s, the city served as an entry gate to Argentina for Jewish refugees from Europe and during the 1970s as an exit point for Jews escaping the dictatorial regime in Argentina.
Early Jewish settlement in Resistencia
About fifty Spanish-speaking Jewish families originating from Tetuan (then in Spanish Morocco) and persuaded by the prospects of economic growth arrived in the forests of the Chaco province in 1905. Most of the new arrivals were active as laborers and merchants; a few years later the majority moved to Resistencia where they established the basis for the Jewish community in the city. Jews coming from Turkey, chiefly from Izmir (Smyrna) and others who had previously settled in a number of villages in the Province of Corrientes followed these first Jewish settlers. By 1910 the number of Jews in Resistencia consisted of about one hundred families. They were joined by a few groups of settlers coming from the Jewish colonies in the provinces of Entre Rios and Santa Fe, who had been disillusioned by the JCA experience.
It was only after the WWI that Jews from Eastern Europe started settling in significant numbers in Resistencia. The economic hardships and political upheavals that followed WWI in Europe were a sharp contrast to the economic development of Argentina, and served as an important stimulus for Jewish immigration. The number of Jewish immigrants increased even more during the years when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Poland and indeed, in the early 1930s, there were some one hundred Jewish families from Eastern Europe living in Resistencia. The largest group of Jewish immigrants came from the Polish region of Volhynia (the towns of Berezno, Rowno and Ratno) (now in the Ukraine), but there were also immigrants from Warsaw, Byelorussia (Minsk), and in smaller numbers, from Galicia, Romania and Bessarabia (now in the Republic of Moldova). Many Jews from Eastern Europe succeeded in bringing their families from Poland during the late 1930’s.
Jewish Population in Resistencia
|Year Jewish Population in Resistencia Percentage of Total City Population|
1910 400 4.77
1930 870 3.48
1939 1,100 2.62
1986 1,087 0.65
2002 800 0.29
Commerce continued to be the main occupational activity of the Jewish population of Resistencia; many new immigrants worked as peddlers and others managed to open small shops. There were also several Jewish professionals, especially lawyers and physicians, while international companies active in the region employed several immigrants as clerks.
Asociación Israelita Latina Merced Y Verdad (Jewish Latin Association Chesed Ve-Emet), the first Jewish community in Resistencia was established by Sephardi Jews in 1912. Even earlier, the local Sephardi community employed a chacham to teach their children, especially in preparation for Bar Mitzvah; the chacham was also in charge of conducting the prayer service. The community purchased a cemetery and built the Community Social Center Chesed Ve-Emet. The local Ashkenazi Jews who did not yet have their own community, were admitted into the Sephardi community; they prayed together and were able to use the cemetery etc., but according to the statutes of the community, Ashkenazi Jews were not eligible to serve in positions of leadership in the community.
The Ashkenazim only started praying separately after 1928, when their numbers increased. A cheder was established for less than ten students, and in the 1930s, a Jewish-Yiddish school was established, which changed its name to the I. L. Peretz Hebrew School in 1945. A Gmilut-Chasadim association was founded in 1931 with the aim of assisting the newly-arrived immigrants. In 1936, the Ashkenazim founded the community Asociación Israelita de Beneficencia de Resistencia (The Jewish Charity Association of Resistencia). In addition to new immigrants, Zionists and Orthodox alike, the association also included Argentinean-born Jews. Until the 1960s, the Ashkenazi community functioned as a typical Eastern European Kehila. The community was led by Bernardo Goransky in its first years and was later led by the energetic personality of Salomon Kohan for more than ten years. In 1937, the community acquired a separate cemetery and the grounds on which the Community Center was later built; since its inauguration in 1943, the Community Center has served as the main location for religious activities, social festivities and private functions.
By 1940, there were about 700 Ashkenazi Jews and nearly 400 Sephardi Jews living in Resistencia.
Until the 1960s, most Sephardi Jews were active in commerce, owning small food shops or serving as lottery agents. Several managed some of the most important shops in the city center, especially A la Ciudad de Roma, a famous bazaar owned by the Bentolila family and a wholesale food company owned by Simon Strugo. In the early days, the Ashkenazi Jews made a living primarily as peddlers. However, by the 1950s this occupation had disappeared and most of the Ashkenazi Jews in the community owned textile, furniture and food shops, while a handful became lawyers, physicians, chemists and there were even five farmers. By the early 1960s, Jews owned the vast majority of stores in Resistencia: special mention should be made of Casa Aides – an electric appliances shop founded in 1936 by Julio Aides, one of the first Jewish settlers in the city, and the Amarilla-Group, active in farming, gas distribution, the timber industry and car and truck agencies under the management of Herman Miedvietzky. In addition, some fifty Jews owned shops in the villages near Resistencia, but lived in the city since their children attended the local Jewish school. Most of the shops were closed for the main Jewish holidays.
Educational and cultural activities
Yiddish was a common language among the Jews of Eastern European origin and until the 1960s could be heard daily in the city center. The young immigrants established a local Yiddish amateur theater company; a library was active between 1929 and its closure in the late 1950s. There were also many cultural and social events attended by members of both Jewish communities.
During the period between 1949-2000 approximately 110 to 130 students attended the Hebrew School, representing more than 95% of all Jewish children in Resistencia. In 1949 Hebrew became the main language of instruction while Yiddish eventually ceased to be the common language in the early 1960s. The Gmilut Chasadim association, which later turned into a Credit Cooperative and became the Banco Israelita del Chaco (Jewish Bank of Chaco) in 1955, supported the school budget. The bank, which had many branches in the province, was managed by members of both communities and was sold to private investors from Buenos Aires in 1966.
The observant Jews in the community kept the Shabbat and until the 1980s, usually hired a chazzan (cantor) to conduct prayers for the High Holidays according to Orthodox tradition. They were also in charge of the local Hevra Kadisha (funeral association).
Ashkenazi Jews in Resistencia traditionally celebrated two Seder nights, with the number of participants and the time it took to read the Haggadah turning into a virtual competition among the local families. In the early 1950s, the Ashkenazi Community Center, with the participation of many Sephardi Jews and Mapai (Zionist-Socialist) party supporters organized a third, non-religious Seder during which they read a non-traditional Haggadah with Israeli political and cultural content. Since the 1970s, the Hebrew School has organized a Third Seder for families who do not celebrate the Seder at home.
Other community cultural activities include annual commemorations of T. Herzl, H. N. Bialik and Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Commemoration Day). On Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), students from the Hebrew School and their parents march together with Israeli flags from the Community Center to the City’s Central Square where they also pay homage to the Argentinean national hero General San Martin.
Zionist activity was very intensive in Resistencia and there were many Zionist youth centers. In 1942 a branch of the Keren Kayemet Le’Israel (Israel National Fund) was established. It conducted several fund-raising campaigns for the benefit of war refugees and later for several Israeli institutions. WIZO had two branches (Sephardi and Ashkenazi), and was followed by the establishment of Young WIZO centers. They endorsed Zionist activities, assisted the Hebrew School, organized the annual Purim Ball, and have been instrumental in organizing collective Bat-Mitzvah celebrations since the 1960’s.
Jewish political and intellectual personalities from Buenos Aires and Israel frequently visited the community for political or fund raising purposes. In addition, the ICUF (The Communist Jewish Movement) held an annual conference and occasionally organized a tour of the famous Yiddish theater company of Buenos Aires. In 1949, following the establishment of the State of Israel and the ideological enthusiasm generated by it, youth organizations such as Dror (which continued its activities until the 1990s), Hashomer Hatsair, and Betar (which had the least supporters) were founded in Resistencia. Many former youth movement members later made Aliya to Israel.
Already from its commencement in the 1930s, the Asociación Israelita de Beneficencia de Resistencia was influenced by different ideologies. There were tense political disputes between followers of the various Zionist movements, with members of Hashomer Hatsair playing a dominant role. Along with members identified with Mapai, Hashomer Hatsair represented the vast majority of the community. The Communists gradually lost ground in favor of the Zionists, especially after the passionate disputes caused by the Stalinist trials against many Jewish personalities in Moscow and Prague in early 1952.
The 1960s saw many changes in the life of the Jewish community in Resistencia, first and foremost in the social composition – the passing away of the community founders, many of them first generation immigrants, migration to other Argentinean cities or to Israel and influx to Resistencia of Jewish families from the small towns of the Chaco province as well as from other parts of Argentina. The occupational patterns also changed – a growing number of Jews became active as professionals, mainly as lawyers, chemists and physicians, and there was a decline in the number of those engaged in commercial activity. The percentage of mixed marriages became significant and reached almost 70% in 2000. These changes brought about shifts in prevalent attitudes towards the community, Zionism and immigration to Israel, and also towards the traditional Jewish way of life. As a result, there was a significant decline in the activities of the community in the 1980s; there was no shochet and the Hevra Kadisha ceased to function. Moreover, in view of the fact that many Jews chose to be buried in private cemeteries because of the economic crisis and their diminished identification with Judaism, the community’s income from the burial fees, one of its main sources of revenue, dropped considerably during the 1990s. Not all Jewish families celebrated the Seder, as was also reflected in a plummet in the consumption of matzos: for a more or less stable Jewish population matzo consumption dropped from a peak of 3,150 kg in 1954 to only 525 kg in 1982. As of the 1980s the community hired young cantors from the Conservative movement, and also engaged several rabbis as spiritual leaders, but their endeavors were not particularly successful. In addition, many Jewish-owned shops remained open during the Jewish holidays, perhaps the most visible example of the change in the attitude to traditional Judaism.
In 1966, the second Jewish generation in Resistencia founded its own Country Club with a swimming pool, a football field, a basketball court and a tennis court. The Country Club enhanced the collaboration between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews of Resistencia, which had its origins in the joint management of the Cooperative-Bank. In the 1990s, due to their diminishing numbers, more Sephardi Jews became members of the Ashkenazi community, thus accelerating the process of the merge between the two communities.
Today the two communities pray together during the High Holidays; Rosh Hashanah is celebrated at the Sephardi Center while Yom Kippur services are held in the hall of the Community Center, where they move the Aron Hakodesh and hire a Conservative cantor. They organize the yearly Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremonies, as well as the community Purim party and collective celebrations for Bat-Mitzvah ceremonies. The difficult economic crisis in Argentina affected the Jewish community of Resistencia during 2001-2002; subsequently there were fewer cultural activities and nearly one hundred people received material assistance from the community. In early 2003 all Jewish organizations joined forces and decided to hire a “community leader” to assist with the spiritual and cultural Jewish life of the community.
Prominent Jews from Resistencia
Several members of Resistencia’s Jewish community have distinguished themselves during the twentieth century, especially as members of the Argentinean National Parliament and in the Provincial Parliament and Government of Chaco Province. They have figured prominently as judges in the local courts; as deans and professors at the National University of the North-East; as writers; as directors of the Bank of Chaco – the regional bank, and as directors of various commercial companies and cultural, sports and professional organizations.
Special mention should be made of Dr. Rita Waismann, a biochemist who attained international fame as a result of her groundbreaking research on leprosy; Julio Kesselman, judge, Minister of Economy, and dean and professor of the local university; Moises Glombovsky, writer and member of many cultural institutions; Moises Leon Penchansky, lawyer and leader of a political party; Miriam Curletti Wajsefeld, a distinguished writer and professor and member of the National Parliament of Argentina; Samuel Hadass, who immigrated to Israel and served as Israel’s ambassador to Spain in the 1980s and the first Israeli ambassador to the Vatican in the early 1990’s.