In The Murders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South America (Restless, Feb.), journalist Sinay probes 22 murders of Jewish immigrants to Argentina living in the community of Moisés Ville, allegedly committed by gauchos between 1889 and 1906.
Given the passage of time and the loss of so many records, were you able to identify any of the killers?
Only three by name—gaucho José María Ríos, who stabbed Gershom Gerchunoff to death in 1892, when Ríos tried to kidnap Gerchunoff’s daughter; another gaucho, Coria, a well-known bandit; and a policeman, Golpe Ramos, who in 1906 murdered Miriam Aliksenitzer, probably in the course of a rape. The history of the criminals is hidden—the state and the press of that time weren’t interested in recording the names of these murderers, who were mostly illiterate, and who, therefore, didn’t represent themselves through their own writings.
What sources were you able to tap?
I turned to history books, newspapers, and magazines of the time in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Spanish; official immigration records; economic reports; books and letters from the community’s pioneers; and stories that were passed down from generation to generation, which many times silenced the horror of what happened.
Was anti-Semitism a factor in the murders?
No, most of the crimes were robberies with murder. I think it was rather xenophobia. There were a lot of crimes in the rural areas, and there were a lot of immigrants from Europe. At that time, the Argentinian economy was being modernized, gauchos were being forced to become farm laborers without their former nomadic freedoms, which impacted their way of life, so, I think that fueled their anger against the immigrants.
Did your research find anything at odds with what your great-grandfather wrote about the murders in an article after WWII?
I would say that the most jarring thing in my great-grandfather Mijl Hacohen Sinay’s text is the monstrous description of some cases. An example: he wrote that Gerchunoff’s body had been missing and that, when found, he already looked “bitten and eaten by birds of prey or field animals; in such a way that only his bones were buried.” But actually the corpse was never lost from sight—Gerchunoff was stabbed in front of many people. My hypothesis is that he exaggerated some facts, intentionally or not, because of imagery so present in the 1940s of the Jewish body emaciated, dead, crushed. Recounting those crimes was also a way of speaking about a present in which the immense crime of WWII cast its shadow over everything.