During a recent trip to Argentina -- eager to see where my parents were born -- I traveled to Carlos Casares, a five-hour trip by car from Buenos Aires. At the town's archive, I looked up my family history. I got more than I bargained for -- especially from a volume of local history that was first written in Yiddish, then translated to Spanish.
Of course, I already knew the basics. In 1891, my ancestors left their homes in Russia and went to Germany, where they boarded ships headed to Buenos Aires. The passage was subsidized by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, who was from a wealthy Jewish banking family.
After Hirsch's only child died in 1887, his philanthropic activities became the focus of his life. Above all, Hirsch wanted to relieve the suffering of millions of Russian Jews by sending them to North and South America, where they would become farmers.
Hirsch founded the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), which bought more than a dozen large land parcels in different parts of Argentina. One of these was the Colonia Mauricio, 200 miles west of Buenos Aires and near the town that I was now visiting.
The colonists arrived full of hope but soon were overwhelmed by reality: They had been plunked down in a place where they didn't speak the language; where they dressed, behaved and prayed differently from those who lived there; where the JCA was rarely available to help, and where they were forced to live in tents, subject to mosquitoes, disease, extreme weather and the occasional vicious criollo looking for a fight. Somewhere in this story, I knew, was the experience of my ancestors.
As I was growing up, my parents would talk about their childhood in the Argentine pampas: My mother would tell stories like the one about her favorite cow falling into a ditch. My father would recall his camaraderie with the tough, nomadic criollos, whose lives were the model for the gaucho, as iconic a figure in the South American imagination as the cowboy has been in North America.
In the iconography of Argentine history, my grandparents were among the first "Jewish gauchos."
At the archive, the director helped me draw a family tree. She showed me a listing for my paternal grandfather, Mois?s Leiderman, one of the founders of the Colonia Mauricio. There was a wonderful photograph, taken in 1903, when my father was 2 years old. My grandparents and their six children are posed stock still, staring at the camera. Trees and farm implements fill in the background.
I also learned that Jacobo Toker, my maternal grandfather, lived and worked in a part of Colonia Mauricio called Algarrobos. There's a document showing that Jacobo married Esperanza Hoijberg in 1895. At the time, my grandfather was 28 and my grandmother 14.
"Fourteen!" I say to the archive director.
She shrugs. It was common at that time.
A greater surprise followed. Before leaving, I bought a book by Marcos Alpersohn, a colonist, who recounted local history. Published in 1922 in Yiddish, it was translated into Spanish in 1991. In Chapter 32, I found a compelling narrative.
In January 1893, there was a gathering of all the people of Colonia Mauricio, a gripe session. After a year of relentless hardships, many of the colonists had had enough.
Desperate questions flew back and forth: Why hasn't the new doctor arrived? Why hasn't the JCA built a ritual bath yet? When will the men's families arrive?
"Finally, a man named Wekselblat vented his pessimism," Alpersohn writes. "He said: 'Doctors? Ritual baths? Bring over your families? No, no! We're dealing with evil people who treat us like slaves! This baron doesn't even exist! We fell into a trap! We have to figure out how to go back to our old homes in Russia, how to get back home!'"
This opened a floodgate: "Everyone went crazy. They all started yelling that they wanted to go back home. 'Let's go home! Let's go back home!'
"'Home?' A sarcastic voice resounded. It was Avrum Hoijberg, an ex-soldier from Odessa who always spoke half in Yiddish, half in Russian.
"'Home? Listen and pay attention! Home!' he repeated, mocking Wekselblat's tone. 'Home! The place where they burned our houses ... trashed our stores ... killed our old people ... destroyed our children ... raped our sisters ... Aha!' he thundered.
"'Listen! I saw a pogrom with my own eyes! Yes, with my own eyes! My boss was standing by my side observing it coolly while vicious hoodlums assaulted and robbed, and he ordered me to guard his business and keep quiet. Wonderful home! Listen carefully! We are here now, in the Republic of Argentina. This is our home!'"
Then something amazing happened.
Alpersohn writes, "And then this tall, robust Jew started to dance in front of everyone. Suddenly, we all breathed more easily. The anguish disappeared and hope took its rightful place again."
Avrum Hoijberg. The name rang a bell. I looked up the family tree, and there he was: Avrum Hoijberg from Odessa. My great-grandfather. My mother's mother's father.
Yes, that was my ancestor: that tall, robust ex-soldier from Odessa who turned a potentially toxic moment around, who danced in the face of his friends' pessimism, who reminded them why they had left czarist Russia and who made them understand that they were already home.
What is home after all? With enough of what Argentines call "polenta" -- grit, perseverance -- just about any place where you've started a new life can become home.
Even a remote farming colony in the pampas.