Samuel, the Robin Hood of the Pampas

Between Carhué and Salinas Grandes, to the west of the province of Buenos Aires, stretches the brackish and sandy region where the cacique Juan Calfucurá had established his base for half a century. His last words had been “not to abandon Carhué to the huinca.” Shortly after his death came terror: the so-called Conquest of the Desert, which decimated the indigenous population and appropriated the territory. After looting his tomb, Nicolás Levalle founded the city of Carhué, a future railway junction that would be a pole of economic and urban development in the area.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, barely three decades after the death of Calfucurá, a group of people who had been escaping from other terrors settled in the region. The Black Hundreds, armed bands of White Russians supported by the Tsarist police, razed the Jewish neighborhoods of the Empire of Nicholas II producing atrocious massacres. The massive diaspora, facilitated by the Jewish Colonization Association, found that ancient indigenous territory where the pioneers of the colonies they named Baron Hirsch, Montefiore, Philippson, Crémieux, Leven, Baron Guinzburg and Clara settled. The most important will be the first, which will end up receiving the name of one of the congressmen of the Assembly of the Year XIII, a lawyer of Alto-Peruvian origin, Pedro Ignacio Rivera, who had been a central protagonist of the Chuquisaca revolution of 1809 with which it began. American emancipation, signer of the Tucumán Independence Act.

The chronicle of the difficulties, sometimes insurmountable, of Rivera, has been narrated by Gregorio Verbitsky, brother of the author of “Villa miseria is also America”, in his book “Afán de half a century”. Written during the government of Perón, to whom he does not spare praise, the book narrates the vicissitudes of the settlers in that promised land in which the hostile climate and the fertility of the soil demanded a strong collective spirit, which will be the distinctive mark of the riverenses. According to the story, although Russian and Yiddish were spoken in the colony and Hebrew and Spanish were taught, integration was not difficult; the second generation will find them converted into gauchos. In the beginning, some settlers lived in zemliankas, semi-buried houses typical of the Russian steppe climate, and in tin sheds that were poorly covered from freezing winters and scorching summers. Under these conditions Rivera flourished, who always had and still has an extremely active cultural life. Various publications in Yiddish such as Di Pampa, Di Idishe Colonie, or Undzer Vort, are testimony to the efforts of institutions such as the Agricultural Cooperative Society, United Farmers, the Israelite Community Hall and, above all, the Israelite Cultural Center with its José Ingenieros Popular Library. But of course the imposing Barón Hirsch synagogue (in the photo) stands out, the community pride of a city that, on the other hand, had a strong secular imprint throughout its history, with strong identities and left-wing political affiliations.

Rivera is a city where theater companies performed Yiddish versions of Shakespeare to a full house, and where a massive civic funeral was held for Scholem Aleichem, the great popular writer who took Jewish literature and humor to another level. . Verbitsky refers to curious scenes that allow us to understand the strong community bond of the city. “When Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) of 1905 came around, they improvised a synagogue in the shed that one of the settlers had built as temporary housing. The appearance of that makeshift temple did not enhance the solemnity of the office too much, but it was more than made up for by the anointing of the settlers, renewed a few days later on Yom Kippur. Never had a Day of Forgiveness been solemnized with such fervor as in that shed in the middle of the pampas. And when the next day it rained and the rain penetrated deeply into the earth, they could believe that their prayers had been heard. (…) “From the first days of the Cultural Center it is a peculiar custom, which attracted large numbers of people every week. It was what they called, by its name in Yiddish, Kestl-Ovnt. Each one wrote on a piece of paper any question about a subject that could be literary, political, artistic or simply current. The pieces of paper were placed in a box, then the questions were taken out of it, and those who held the presidency —or any of the public, if applicable— answered them”. These ceremonies, as well as political meetings, could last many hours; it was not unusual for dawn to break and the frost to close the event with a dance. “There is a detail that urges us to mention, perhaps seduced by its vague analogy with a glorious precedent of Eretz Israel: the Barón Hirsch colony had an improvised body of guards, a kind of homemade Hashomer that preserved it from marauders and thieves. The settlers took turns in them, and more than once the looters of chicken coops, petty rustlers and other profiteers learned firsthand that the Jewish farmers were willing to defend what was theirs. The Russians hit hard, it was a phrase that made its way.

So far it could be the classic chronicle of a colonization process like the one that took place in Entre Ríos and other places on the continent. But at one point in the book the author states: “Rivera had a Jewish rustler, Shmilekl gaucho, a man with arms to bear, who in bravados had affirmed his handsomeness; that more than once he risked his life, claiming that of his adversary, and that he died in his law, because the day came when his rival with the knife was more handsome than him or simply got up early, although there is also talk of an ambush in the one that fell riddled with bullets. Shmilekl gaucho was a kind of hero for the Rivera boys, who had a great honor to go to the place where he mated or barbecued and received his greetings. And it still is for those who remember how, recently arrived in Rivera as a stevedore, he ended the evil habit of bursting a bag to steal the scattered wheat from its owner. He faced a thug with a knife with his bare hand, and at least where he was, the iniquitous plunder was not repeated. Afterward, perhaps his own courage led him to the hazardous life in which he ended his days. But he was loyal to his former neighbors.

Unnoticed by the history of rural banditry, a social phenomenon typical of societies under construction that the historian Eric Hobsbawn characterized as a “primitive revolt” and Roberto Carri, in his book on Isidro Velázquez, as a “pre-revolutionary form of violence”, of “Schmil Gaucho” there are only a couple of testimonials that surround his figure with an aura of legend. In “The Jewish Robin Hood of the Pampas,” published in Nueva Sion on July 4, 1987, Jorge Lipschitz refers to an encounter during a train trip to Rivera with an old woman who had met the gaucho from Matrero. According to the witness, “the inhabitants of the region forgot the name of that blond and stocky Jew. He was a strong young boy who had a beautiful black horse, a devilish steed faster than the wind that only he could ride.” “Samuel was a cattle rustler. But he was not a simple rustler like the many that devastated the region. He stole only from the rich and distributed the fruit of his labor to the poor. The classic story of the highwayman had an unexpected chapter in Rivera. Apparently, and this is no less unusual, “Samuel” was in charge of a gang of White Russians and he, the only Jew, was the boss. “Among the rules of his people, he had imposed one that was obligatory to abide by: he was strictly prohibited from stealing from the Jewish settlers.”

According to the old woman “he had a soft, pleasant voice, and at night he was heard humming old Jewish melodies around the ranches in the area. The Creole girls who had learned the tune from Samuel remembered him, melancholically, singing on moonlit nights in the infinite pampas. They had made him a champion, who had a wife and the door of a ranch open in every town in the region. The police did not dare to pursue him, and his men respected him ”. “But they harbored in their hearts a savage hatred for him. They hated him because he was a Jew, and he knew that ”. Apparently he used to help newly arrived families who did not speak the language. “His Yiddish was refined and he denoted a careful education. On more than one occasion he had to be the tenth man for the minyan, and he showed that he knew how to pray and did it with a strange unction”. Crucial data, which emphasizes the rarity of the character to the extent that he speaks of a pious soul capable of being part of one of the sacred instances prescribed by the Torah, the prayer among ten pure men that divinity makes present.

But, as is the fate of all rebel horsemen, as Hugo Chumbita calls them, Samuel Gaucho met a tragic end. “While preparing a coup one night over a campfire,” the testimony continues, “one of his men told that that same afternoon he had robbed a herd from a Jewish settler, who, instead of defending himself, cried asking him why did you rob me? Samuel ordered him to return what was stolen. The other refused. The blade of the facón shone in the night. And while the two men were locked in a duel, a lasso hissed in the darkness and Schml Gaucho fell to the ground entwined, curled up, continuing to defend himself against the entire gang that was throwing itself at him with drawn daggers. Before expiring, he managed to hear the word Jew among the insults. The mangled body was found in the middle of the field and buried by some peons. “During the moonlit nights, the Creole girls hummed melancholic Hebrew tunes, impatiently waiting for the blond Jewish rustler, the Robin Hood of the pampas,” the woman concluded with tears in her eyes.

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J. A. Allen

Author, blogger, freelance writer. Hater of spiders. Drinker of wine. Mother of hellions.

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