Signs locat­ed at the ceme­tery in Moisés Ville, Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

Mur­der of a young girl. Mys­tery around it — Pub­lic con­ster­na­tion ”: the news appeared on Tues­day, July 17, 1906, in the Buenos Aires news­pa­per La Nación. It had arrived by tele­graph from the cor­re­spon­dent in the province of San­ta Fe — some 400 miles to the north — and said that among some tall reeds, near a train sta­tion, the body of a nine­teen-year-old girl had been found. Her name was Miri­am Alik­sen­itzer at the time of leav­ing the czarist empire with her fam­i­ly, but was changed to María Alex­enicer a few months lat­er on her entry papers to Argenti­na. The colony of Moisés Ville was a small agri­cul­tur­al town found­ed in 1889 by Russ­ian Jew­ish immi­grants that, over the decades, would become the Jerusalem of South Amer­i­ca.” Sud­den­ly Moisés Ville was the scene of a shock­ing mur­der that would be in the pages of the nation­al news­pa­pers for two months, inun­dat­ing the police chief of the area – an old sol­dier named Golpe Ramos – with accu­sa­tions of pos­si­ble culprits.

But the mur­der of Miri­am Alik­sen­itzer was not the first homi­cide in Moisés Ville. Much lat­er, in 1947, an elder­ly jour­nal­ist wrote an account of twen­ty-two mur­ders that had shak­en the colony in those ear­ly years at the turn of the cen­tu­ry. Most of these mur­ders were tied to rob­beries in rur­al areas com­mit­ted by gau­cho ban­dits; how­ev­er, some of the oth­ers were not moti­vat­ed by theft, as it seems to be the case with Miri­am Alik­sen­itzer. She was most like­ly mur­dered in the course of a rape.

In addi­tion to greed-fueled theft, there was a cer­tain ele­ment of xeno­pho­bic hatred at play. It was not a nov­el con­cept that immi­grants could gen­er­ate resent­ment among the locals, shown by the events of 1872, when some fifty gau­chos attacked the town of Tandil (in the Province of Buenos Aires) under cries of Death to grin­gos!” Thir­ty-six immi­grants were mas­sa­cred. The tragedy was insti­gat­ed by a mys­te­ri­ous witch doc­tor who died not long after in prison.

The First Jew­ish Vic­tims in Moisés Ville” was the title of that 1947 record of twen­ty-two mur­ders, pub­lished in a year­book of the Jew­ish Research Insti­tute (known by its Yid­dish acronym IWO, the — orga­ni­za­tion still exists and is ded­i­cat­ed to the study of Jew­ish-Argen­tine cul­ture). The author of the arti­cle was Mijl Haco­hen Sinay, and he had spent some years in Moisés Ville before 1900 although by 1947 he no longer lived there.

I know his sto­ry well: Mijl Haco­hen Sinay was my great-grandfather.

La Pren­sa, Sept. 7, 1906. Titles: San­ta Fe — The crime of Moisés Ville — Demand of the peo­ple against the author­i­ties” / Archive: Bib­liote­ca Tornquist-BCRA

When I came across the arti­cle and the sto­ry of the crimes, I went on a quest to learn more. I dis­cov­ered that the body of that mur­dered girl had been kept for more than a hun­dred years in a square and heavy grave in the Moisés Ville ceme­tery, which was the first Jew­ish ceme­tery in Argenti­na. Despite the weath­er and the wind, you could still read the Hebrew inscrip­tion on her tombstone:

Here lies / the young maid­en / Miri­am daugh­ter of Zal­men / Alik­sen­itzer / who was killed at the hands of / mon­strous peo­ple on the eve of / the 23rd day of the month of Tam­muz / in the year 5666. May her soul be bound up in the chain of life.”

Sev­er­al months before stand­ing in front of that grave, I had dis­cov­ered my great-grand­fa­ther’s arti­cle by chance. It was my father who found it online and emailed it to me. We did not know then that some­thing impor­tant had begun.

Four years after that email, six­ty-six years after the pub­li­ca­tion of the orig­i­nal arti­cle by Mijl Haco­hen Sinay, and one-hun­dred-twen­ty-four years after the first homi­cide recount­ed in that arti­cle (one that took place in 1889, even before the colony had a name), my own inves­ti­ga­tion into those mur­ders was turned into a book (Los crímenes de Moisés Ville, 2013, Tus­quets) and is now pub­lished in Eng­lish by Rest­less Books: The Mur­ders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South Amer­i­ca.

I took as a start­ing point for my research the text of Mijl Haco­hen Sinay, who nar­rat­ed the twen­ty-two homi­cides. With my back­ground in crim­i­nal and inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, I’ve met lawyers who love fame, crim­i­nals who defend them­selves in the media rather than in the court of law, and I got used to police offi­cers who tell short ver­sions of the truth so as not to explain too much. How­ev­er, when faced with the mur­ders of Moisés Ville, I won­dered how best to approach the inves­ti­ga­tion of these events that had occurred in such a dis­tant time, in such a strange space.

The inves­ti­ga­tion was com­posed around sev­er­al axes: the famil­ial accounts of the descen­dants of the vic­tims, the sto­ries of the cur­rent inhab­i­tants of Moisés Ville (still loaded with cen­turies-old clues); the his­to­ri­o­graph­ic works of the region, the press reports from the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry that told the events first-hand, and the accounts of oth­er set­tlers who —like my great-grand­fa­ther— had left their own tes­ti­monies (which I found at the IWO Insti­tute, thanks to the work of hun­dreds of vol­un­teers who had res­cued these books from among the rub­ble of a ter­ror­ist attack in 1994). Many of these accounts were in Yiddish.

Crime can be an excuse for telling a big­ger story.

All of these ele­ments con­tributed to my search, with the notable excep­tion of the court records: the offi­cial accounts of these mur­ders don’t exist. I searched for them in the Gen­er­al Archive of the Courts of the Judi­cial Pow­er of the Province of San­ta Fe, in the Gen­er­al Archive of the Province of San­ta Fe, in the depart­men­tal offices of San Cristóbal, in the Rosario muse­ums, but nobody knows what hap­pened to those papers. The court doc­u­men­ta­tion of crimes ends abrupt­ly in 1888, just a year before the first mur­der in Moisés Ville. From there onward, and until 1915, very few records are kept. The mys­ter­ies of bureau­cra­cy. Our prob­lem is always space,” the direc­tor of one of those archives admit­ted to me, and she explained that the doc­u­ments require a build­ing infra­struc­ture that is not usu­al­ly pri­or­i­tized in pub­lic agendas.

Crime can be an excuse for telling a big­ger sto­ry. That is why in this book I am inter­est­ed in show­ing these cul­tures through the spe­cif­ic peo­ple involved in these mur­ders. A lot of my sources describe the lives of the vic­tims, but that of the crim­i­nals is hid­den. Why? The press of that time was not inter­est­ed in pre­serv­ing the names of these mur­der­ers, who were towns­peo­ple and in most cas­es illit­er­ate and who, there­fore, could not rep­re­sent them­selves through their own writings.

I could only find the names of the killers in three cas­es; for exam­ple, a gau­cho named Coria (it’s a sur­name). In his book Di Yuden in Argen­tine (The Jews in Argenti­na), pub­lished in 1914 and notably the first work about the local Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, David Gold­man (son of the rab­bi who found­ed Moisés Ville) wrote:

Espe­cial­ly feared was that famous ban­dit of the time, Coria, or, as he was often called, Coria mit di matikes’ (Coria with the mat­tocks). He was big boned, nat­u­ral­ly strong. His pres­ence alone instilled fear in all. He had twelve chil­dren, all of them mur­der­ers. And wher­ev­er a tragedy might strike it was known that they had been involved.”

David Gold­man men­tions him imme­di­ate­ly after detail­ing a few mur­ders in Moisés Ville. Lat­er, I learned of anoth­er Coria, first name Fed­eri­co, who on Feb­ru­ary 19, 1902, was sen­tenced by a court to a penal­ty of impris­on­ment for an unspec­i­fied term” for hav­ing caused the death of one man. This, noth­ing more, is what appears in a brief, two-page dossier held at the Gen­er­al Archive of the Province of San­ta Fe. Is Fed­eri­co Coria the same Coria mit di matikes’? Sources weren’t able to con­firm it.

And I under­stood, as I pro­ceed­ed to recon­struct each of the twen­ty-two homi­cides that, despite the fact that the court records have been lost, and that a cen­tu­ry has passed, these sto­ries still hold some strong sig­nif­i­cance in the present.

In Yid­dish cul­ture there is a con­cept, di Gold­ene Keit,” the gold­en chain, that refers to the chain of gen­er­a­tions and the moral oblig­a­tion to bequeath, from father to son, all knowl­edge. No one is the sole own­er of the truth. Each gen­er­a­tion is the cus­to­di­an of it for the short time in which we pass through the world, so we must leave it to the next gen­er­a­tion as com­pre­hen­sive­ly as pos­si­ble. We are free to adapt our opin­ions, but we need to have enough mate­r­i­al to choose from.

Bring­ing this series of homi­cides for­ward from the mists of time is a way of adding some­thing to that chain of gen­er­a­tions, and under­stand­ing how that first fric­tion between gau­chos and immi­grants lat­er fused into a new, resilient iden­ti­ty for a new time.

The case of Miri­am Alik­sen­itzer went unpunished.

Javier Sinay is a writer and jour­nal­ist. His books include Camino al Este, Cuba Stone (in col­lab­o­ra­tion), Los crimes de Moisés Ville (forth­com­ing from Rest­less Books as The Mur­ders of Moi­ses Ville, 2022), and San­gre joven, which won the Pre­mio Rodol­fo Walsh de la Sem­ana Negra de Gijón, España. In 2015 he won the Pre­mio de la Fun­dación Gabo/​FNPI for his chron­i­cle Fast. Furi­ous. Dead.,” pub­lished in Rolling Stone. His work has appeared in the news­pa­pers La Nación and Clarín, in Buenos Aires, and on the web­site RED/ACCIÓN. He was also a South Amer­i­ca cor­re­spon­dent for El Uni­ver­sal (Mex­i­co) and the edi­tor of Rolling Stone (Argenti­na). He has col­lab­o­rat­ed with Gatopar­do (Mex­i­co), Label Negra (Peru), Letras Libres (Mex­i­co) and Reporta­gen (Switzer­land). He lives in Buenos Aires.