east european immigration into argentina          a tale of pampas past  

Click for today's edition of the Herald!Article by Michael Soltys. Published in Buenos Aires Herald, 1998

A different kind of multinational:
Immigrants to Argentina from Eastern Europe

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                    Immigrant family arriving in Buenos Aires, early 20th century

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In the year 1928 a train was hurtling its way through the Central Slovakian countryside, destined to become one -of the worst railway disasters in Eastern European history.

Rescue workers picking their way through the mangled bodies found a three year-old boy who had miraculously survived. He was too young to identify his dead parents beyond "Daddy" and "Mummy" but he did know that they always called him Gyula (Julius in Hungarian) and that the family was travelling that day to the East Slovak regional centre of Kosice. Today Gyula Kosice is one of the best known artists in Argentina.

While most East Europeans have a clearer idea of their origins than the ethnically Hungarian, Slovak-born artist, nationality is rarely simple in this part of the world, as this writer knows from family experience - in the course of this century his father's birthplace has been the Austrian city of Lemberg, the Polish city of Lwow, Soviet Lvov and now the Ukrainian Lviv.

Very few East European immigrants have come to Argentina with the passport of their nationality. One reason is that of the nine communities which will form the basis of this study, only a stunted Romania existed as a separate country at the beginning of this century. At that time all Eastern Europe was under four empires - the Austro-Hungarian, Czarist, German and Ottoman - apart from the odd Balkan monarchy or principality. Now there are 16 countries in the same area without even counting the four above empires in their current form.

(In the following text body the East European immigrant nationalities are presented in order of their settling in Argentina).

Hungarian Immigrants to Argentina

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Miklos Szekasy of the Federation of Hungarian Entities in Argentina has ingeniously secured pride of place for the Magyar nation by pointing out that the very name of this continent is Hungarian since Americo is the Spanish version of Saint Imre, the son of Hungary's first king Saint Stephen.

Janos Varga, the master gunner of the Ferdinand Magellan expedition which circumnavigated the globe, was Hungarian and set foot in the River Plate in January, 1520 and in San Julian in March. But most Hungarians here in colonial times were Jesuits.

During the independence wars musician Ferenc Jozsef Debaly composed the national anthems of both Uruguay and Paraguay. After the Hungarian uprising of 1848-9, two enterprising Hungarian officers, General Juan Czetz and Mauricio Mayer , fled here - Czetz organized the Military College upon its foundation in 1848-9.

Mass immigration only came after the First World War when 70 percent of the lands of the Crown of St. Stephen were ceded to other countries, prompting many of the four million Hungarians living in them to look elsewhere.

Those coming to Argentina either stayed around Dock Sud or went up to Chaco where the surnames of the mayors of Villa Angela and Santa Sylvina today (Vajda and Szabo) attest to the number of Hungarians living there. Rosario was another focus. The community newspaper Magyar Hirlap was founded in 1921.
If most of the earlier immigrants were workers and peasants, the Communist takeover of Hungary in 1948 drove out intellectuals and professionals (with a further trickle after the 1956 Revolution).It was around this time that San Ladislao school was founded in Olivos today it has some 900 pupils.

Hungary's important Calvinist and Lutheran minorities both built churches for themselves

One Hungarian emigrant to Argentina after 1940 has literally left his mark around the world - Laszlo Biro has given his name to the ballpoint he invented in Hungary in 1938.

After 1956 Argentine Hungarians became increasingly alienated from their Communist-dominated homeland, which made it harder to maintain the language and culture. Nevertheless, the Coral Hungaria has kept singing and three folklore groups have kept dancing all this time.

The bond with the homeland was restored in 1992 when the Federation of Hungarian Entities was formed, simultaneously uniting the 18 Hungarian organizations here and linking them with the World Hungarian Federation in Budapest.
Since 1990 there has been a Hungarian Chamber of Commerce whose president is the carpet magnate Ervin Kalpakian, born in Hungary despite the Armenian name.Today the number of Hungarian-Argentines is estimated at 30,000 although at least some Magyar blood runs in the veins of quarter of a million.


Czech Immigrantsgo to top of page


Most Czech immigration came out in the first 30 years of this century and about 90 percent are from Southern Moravia. Since 1930 these Czechs have been separated for far too long from their homeland under first Nazism and then Communism.

There are two clubs in Villa Dominico, Sokol (Hawk) and Sparta. The former club stresses sports and dancing. There are also two Czech clubs in Chaco and one in Comodoro Rivadivia. The Czech Republic and Slovakia separated more than five years ago but these clubs uniquely refuse to accept the divorce since the Comodoro club is called the Asociacion de Chews y Eslovacos while the two Chaco clubs are the Union Checoslovaca in Roque Saenz Pena and the Colectividad Checoslovaca in Las Brenas. Also in Las Brenas ,is Esteban Franta, who is willing to teach the Czech language to anybody who might be interested.

Slovak Immigrantsgo to top of page


Many of the first Slovaks here at the start of the century actually came from outside present-day Slovakia. Many more came during the depressed 30s most had tried to go to the United States but found the US door shut. They settled in Buenos Aires, Chaco, Berisso and Comodoro Rivadavia.

The wartime pro-Axis puppet state headed by Monsignor Josef Tiso placed many Slovaks in a similar position to the Croats with Pavelic after 1945 they could only go to Germany or Argentina. Many political refugees came then but there were only a couple after the "Prague spring" of 1968. There is a Slovak Cultural Association in Jose Marmol.



Croatian Immigrants to Argentinago to top of page


The most successful of all the Croats in Argentina was also almost the first to arrive here - Nikola Mihanovic came to Montevideo in 1867 (Major Jakov Buratovic arrived here earlier in the same decade). Settling down in Buenos Aires, Mihanovic by 1909 owned 350 vessels of one kind or another, including 82 steamers. By 1918 he employed 5,000 people, mostly from his native Dalmatia Mihanovic by himself was thus a major factor in building up a Croat community which remains primarily Dalmatian to this day.

Fabulously wealthy as Mihanovic was, police inspector Ivan Vucetic (1858-1925) probably enjoys more worldwide fame as the inventor of fingerprints. Croats also introduced advanced forestry know-how to a country with little knowledge of such techniques. Such politically famous names as Delichand Ivanissevich also date from this first generation.

The second wave of
Croat immigration was far more numerous, totalling 15,000 by 1939. Mostly peasants, these immigrants fanned out to work the land in Buenos Aires province, Santa Fe, Chaco and Patagonia. This wave was accompanied by a numerous clergy to attend their spiritual needs, especially Franciscans.

If the first two waves had been primarily economic, the third wave after the Second World War was eminently political. Ante Pavelic, the Ustase leader who had been able to create a Croat state for the first time in nearly 1,000 years at the price of aligning with the Axis, did not find too many doors open to him around the world after the Nazi defeat in 1945 and ended up in Peron's Argentina. Some 20,000 Croat political refugees came to Argentina and most became construction workers on Peron's public works projects until they started to pick up some Spanish.

Between 1948 and 1957 Buenos Aires was the capital of Pavelic's Croat government in exile. The Herald asked Maja Lukac de Stier (its source for the Croat community) just how important Pavelic was at that time. She admitted that he was important while he lived (he died in Spain in 1959) but most Croats preferred the anti-Axis Peasant Party leader Vladimir Macek.

While on the one hand Croat culture is now suffering the relentless assimilation affecting all communities, interest in the language has increased recently because the achievement of independence and peace in Croatia make it possible to visit family and to indulge nostalgia for roots.



Lithuanian Immigrants to Argentina go to top of page

In Argentina for just over a century, the Lithuanian community is surprisingly vigorous considering the tiny Baltic republic from which they emerge.

Most of the 30,000 are thought to have come in the 1925-30 period with only about 1,000 coming after the Second World War.

The main centres are Buenos Aires, Rosario, Berisso and Cordoba. There are clubs in this capital and Lands, a parish in Avellaneda, two clubs in Berisso and a club and a parish in Rosario. These clubs are folklore-oriented and seek to maintain folk dancing. There are two newspapers in the Lithuanian language but no school.


Polish Immigrants to Argentina go to top of page

In the case of Polish immigration political motives preceded economic. After the failure of the 1830-31 revolt against Russian rule, the rebels scattered all over the world and some came as far as Argentina. Historically a martial race, a few Poles enlisted in the Argentine Army for the war against Paraguay, standing out more for quality than quantity.

The next stage of Polish emigration was rather more prosaic when seven Polish families came out to till the red soil of Misiones in 1897. Their life was hard but many more were to follow, including even a couple of nobles: Bialostocki and Tarnowski.

In 1901 Misiones Governor Juan Jose Lanusse wrote to a friend:

"I've seen 500 of these immigrants arrive in Posadas in a steamer barely able to take half of them ... Eminently Catholic, the first thing they do upon arrival in Posadas is go to church ... In agriculture they only have, rudimentary skills ... there are Poles who have re-sown three or
four times in a season fields destroyed by ants with a patience and persistence inconceivable in Italian, Spanish or any other farmers ... Their crime rate is very low; they are very moral and marry very young and their women are most fecund."

The Polish community's historian here is a Franciscan, Father Antonio Herkulan Wrobel. This fact has the virtue of reflecting a s' the piety of the people among whom the current Pope was born - Polonia semper fidelis - but it also limits the scope of his work.
Every Polish priest here since the first Jesuit in 1749 is meticulously recorded - today there are 22 Polish priests, 85 monks and friars and 33 nuns. Every Polish church, chapel and shrine in the country is likewise lovingly photographed and described - this work at least shows that the Polish presence in Argentina is not limited to Misiones and Greater Buenos Aires but can also be found in Chaco, Formosa, Santa Fe, Tucuman and La Pampa.

There were probably never more Poles in Argentina than immediately after the Second World War when Argentina was far easier to enter than the United States and far more comfortable than most of postwar Europe. Countless veterans of the Anders and other armies could be found around town in those days, not to mention the famous writer Witold Gombrowicz, who was visiting just when war broke out in 1939 and remained here for the best part of two decades. But many Poles gradually found new homes in North America or Western Europe.

Enough remain to form a community of indeterminate size. Its central organization is the Union de los Polacos en Argentina, Borges (ex-Serrano) 2076. No point in saying how many clubs this groups because just bringing two Poles together often seems sufficient basis for a club.


Ukrainian Immigrants to Argentina go to top of page

The Ukrainian community is one of the few immigrant communities here which is not slowly dying out - in the last three years some 4,000 Ukrainians have entered the country with work permits and the first arrivals are already being naturalized.

Many more would come but they all have to pass the filter of the Argentine consulate in Kiev, which keeps the flow to a trickle. Just as well, reflects Jorge Iwanyk, president of the Central Representation of the Ukrainian Community in Argentina - community organizations are not geared for an avalanche.

The Ukrainian community celebrated its centenary last year - the 1897 arrival of seven peasant families in Apostoles as part of Misiones Governor Juan Jose Lanusse's policy of building up a barrier of European settlement against Brazilian penetration. More families followed -Ukrainian immigration in this period would be even higher counting the Jews from the ghettoes of Kiev and Odessa (kept full by the exclusion of Jews from Russia). The only immigrants ever to come with Ukrainian passports before the present day were Jews taking advantage of Ukraine's brief independence from 1918 to 21.

If the first wave of Ukrainians were Galician Greco-Catholics who went to Misiones, the second wave were Volhynian Orthodox who went to Chaco. Others went to Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, Entre Rios and Mendoza. At this stage the community was still solidly peasant - it took 50 years for the first university graduate to emerge.

Iwanyk himself came to Argentina exactly 50 years ago in September, 1948. His father had also applied to go to the United States and Canada but Argentina accepted them first. By the time the US permits came through, young Jorge was eligible for the draft.

The postwar wave of immigrants accompanying the Iwanyks contained more people from the professional and educated classes. The most successful business activities were also then since Argentine import substitution policies could use Ukrainians trained with the Soviet Five Year Plan stress on heavy industry. Rosamonte yerba mate is also Ukrainian.

Today the community is estimated at anything up to 250,000.

The Greco-Catholic Church is an unmistakeably Ukrainian institution - it has a 35-year cathedral in Ramon Falcon, churches in Villa Adelina, Lands and Avellaneda and 60 churches or chapels in Misiones, where there is also a radio and television programme in the Ukrainian language.

Yet in many ways the Ukrainian-Argentines are more Argentine than Ukrainian - Iwanyk is shocked to find several cases of anti-Semitism among the new Ukrainian arrivals, something which has been weaned out of all Ukrainian-Argentines by three generations of the melting-pot.



Slovenian Immigrants to Argentinago to top of page

There have been two waves of Slovene immigration, one after each world war. The motives of the first wave were far more economic than political but the tremendously divisive 2nd World War (Cetniks- versus Ustase versus Tito's partisans, etc.) seems to have also divided the Slovenes into pre-Tito and anti-Tito factions.

The Slovene community ranges from 10,000 to 15,000, guesses journalist Jorge Brinsek. Its heartland is in San Martin and San Justo in the north-western suburbs of Greater Buenos Aires with the Slovensky Dom radio programme and a newspaper called "Free Slovenia". There are boy scouts and choirs, as well as a Slovene church in Flores where a priest once drew congregations of 1,000 with his fiery anti-Tito sermons. The Slovenes also have Germanophile tendencies, says Brinsek, and like to send their children to German schools.


Romanian Immigrants to Argentina  

There are 600 Romanians registered here, reports the consulate at the Romanian Embassy, and about 5,000, including the families of previous immigration.

This came out in three waves, of which the first from 1920 to 1945 drew people from Transylvania, Bukovina and Bessarabia rather than the country's Danubian heartlands. The second wave came in 1945-6 after the war but the recent wave in this decade seems the biggest. There is a small Romanian Orthodox church near the Children's Hospital.

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Immigration from Britain & British Empire Extensive site which includes many links to all aspects of 19th century emigration to Argentina.
Welsh immigrants in Patagonia: Mimosa, the old ship that sailed into history Useful outline history of the voyage by Susan Wilkinson
Welsh settlers to Argentina: Gaiman, an unforgettable people Short article by Joe Schneider about the Welsh settlement
Irish immigration to Argentina: Land, lambs, churches Outline of the key events in early Irish settlement in Argentina

Argentina, 1852-1942: Economics Links to the background context of the period

You might also like to visit one of these related topic sites on the history of Argentina:  






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