Relatives who couldn’t make it to my bar mitzvah sent telegrams. I remember just one of them, “Best wishes from Family Samsanowitz.” My father told me they were his relatives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had never heard of them before, and I’ve heard nothing of them since. They are my “one telegram” relatives.
“Family Samsanowitz” fell out of mind until recently, when I read an article about the “Jewish gauchos” of Moisés Ville, Argentina. In the 1940’s, there were 5000 Jews living on that grassland outpost. Like the Jews of Claremont, many of them, or their parents, fled Czarist Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, again like Claremont, their numbers have dwindled, and the last remaining Jewish gauchos have mostly traded in their horses for Ford pickup trucks.
I can’t picture any of my relatives galloping in from the pampas, but the article includes a picture of Abel Gerson herding his cows. In the Old Country the Gersons were named “Gershuni,” and my Cousin Janet claimed that all the Gershunis are related. My grandmother’s maiden name was Gerson.
In the fall of 1951, a Dartmouth senior from Connecticut decided he wanted to become a rabbi. What better way to start than to attend Shabbos (or “Shabbat”) services on Friday night, and the closest synagogue happened to be Temple Meyer-David in Claremont. At that time, I was preparing for my bar mitzvah the following March.
My parents met this young man, and he became a regular Friday dinner guest at our home. He was the sort of person you don’t forget, even if you were only twelve at the time. He was charming, smart, and movie-star handsome. He graduated from Dartmouth, and that was the last I saw of him. I heard he went on to become a rabbi.
The next time I came across his name was in the early 1980’s, when I read a book called “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number,” written by the Argentinian journalist Jacobo Timerman. The book tells about Timerman’s imprisonment and torture during a very bad time in Argentina, when thousands of people were “disappeared” under a military dictatorship. When I opened the book, I read the dedication: “To Marshall Meyer, a rabbi who brought comfort to Jewish, Christian, and atheist prisoners in Argentine jails.”
Marshall Meyer, our Dartmouth College, Friday night dinner guest from thirty years earlier, had become the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Buenos Aires. More than that, when the military took over the country and imprisoned thousands of citizens, he became a human rights hero. Using his considerable personal charm and powers of persuasion, he saved hundreds of lives. After democracy was restored, Argentina awarded him its highest honor, the Order of the Liberator General San Martin.
In 1952, he was not even a rabbinical student, much less a rabbi, but my parents asked Marshall to co-preside at my bar mitzvah. I can still picture him standing next to me on the bimah (the raised platform in the front of the synagogue), and my photograph album from that day shows the young, handsome student looking at me with a thoughtful expression as I raised my hands to God.
So far as I know, no one has written about Marshall Meyer’s visits to Claremont. For a brief time, he was one of us. I wonder whether, in later years, he knew my relatives, the Family Samsanowitz.