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.