When I was a little girl growing up in Mexico City in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, whenever Mamma Angelita, my grandmother, wanted to teach me something, whether it was the Torah or our family history, she would start the story with “once upon a time”.
So in loving memory of her:
Once upon a time there was a little town in the land of Lithuania, a far away country. Vilkaviskis was the name of the town. The people of Vilkaviskis lived in constant terror, for it was dangerously close to Russia and Alexander III, whose rule of hatred towards the Jews meant destruction, pogroms, and death.
It was after one particular bloody pogrom that the Jews of Vilkaviskis, lead by the Korenfelds, decided they had had enough. There was no way they could fight back, so the best thing they could do was pack up and leave. Sure they loved Lithuania, but as long as Alexander III ruled, they would stay as far away as possible.
This was at the end of the XIX Century, and travel was not an easy endeavor, particularly if you were a Jew from Vilkaviskis. But the townspeople were determined. Someone mentioned a brand new country at the other side of the world. Although ancient, Mexico was also new. A vast country with beautiful, and yet unexplored coasts, bountiful vegetation, and a warm climate, which would surely be a nice change from the everlasting winter of Vilkaviskis.
And so it was decided. They would go to Mexico and start anew. They would find a place in Mexico where they could live in peace, free from persecution. Where the children could play, the women could keep a Jewish home, and the men could work without fear.
They had to leave everything behind. The trip would be long, and there was no room but for the essentials.
First they traveled to Poland. From there they found their way to Spain, and shortly after, to Mexico.
Along the way, they had decided to become part of their new country. So the name Korenfeld was translated to Ocampo, which loosely has the same meaning.
After a couple of months of travel, they finally reached their destination. Mexico was even more beautiful than they had imagined. The people were friendly, and they seemed to welcome them just fine.
The Jews of Vilkaviskis had heard of the state of Guerrero in the Southwest region of Mexico, and it’s promise of everlasting spring. So to Guerrero they went.
There, not far from the silver-producing town of Taxco, they found the perfect place, a land surrounded by green mountains, valleys, small rivers, and perfect climate. The view was breathtaking, and so they decided to call it Buenavista.
And that is how the Jews of Vilkaviskis became the Jews of Buenavista.
Mamma Angelita, my grandmother, was only 10 years old when the XX Century began, shortly after their arrival in Buenavista.
Her father had adopted the name Velasco, probably because it reminded him of Vilkaviskis.
I never knew what my great grandparents’ Hebrew names were. People have always referred to them as “Papa Bocho” and “Mamma Lukah”.
With very limited funds Papa Bocho and Mamma Lukah started a ranch, at first they only had a goat and a hen.
In just a few years the place was established as a full functioning town. The tailor from Vilkaviskis was now the tailor in Buenavista. He also happened to be my great-grandfather, on the other side of my mother’s family. “Papa Tomas” was a talented man who was also Buenavista’s first judge, and first teacher.
Papa Tomas was also one of Mexico’s first women’s rights advocates, teaching the natives of the land how to properly treat their wives and daughters. He convinced them to let them go to the market by themselves, that they should not walk behind the men, and that it was perfectly alright for their daughters to learn how to read and write.
In that respect Mamma Lukah was also ahead of her time. She was a learned woman who taught many of the native women how to read. She also made sure all of her children had a good education. In those days that meant home schooling her “kinder”.
The goat and the hen turned into a profitable ranch.
Buenavista was so successful, that soon people from other regions in Guerrero started to come and settle there.
Cattle and commerce were the main resources. Soon the railroad opened a station there, making Buenavista even more accessible.
My mother’s father and her uncle grew up loving trains, and so the tailor’s sons, Rossendo and Daniel, became Buenavista’s first station’s chiefs.
Mamma Angelita never told me how she met my grandfather Rossendo. They had four children, two boys and two girls, Leonor, Tomas, Neftali (my mother), and Narciso (named by his biological parents, since he was adopted at the age of 4).
Mamma Angelita opened Guerrero’s first “unofficial” free clinic. It all started when she “treated” one of the natives for a stomach problem. Soon after, people came to her instead of the local “curandero” (witch doctor).
Unfortunately, Jewish hatred was not exclusive to Vilkaviskis. Although they were able to make a much better life for themselves and for their children, they also encounter some resentment. On August 7, 1947, grandfather Rossendo was murdered, shot in the back by a coward who had been helped by him for many years. Papa Rossendo had loaned money to this ingrate, never charging him interest or demanding full payment when the bill was due.
The murderer spent only a few days in jail and was shortly released by an obviously anti-Semitic judge. However divine justice was evident when years later the man died of leprosy.
I never met grandfather Rossendo. But there is a deep love in my heart for a man who, by all accounts, was a kind, loving human being.
In it’s early days there were no priests in Buenavista. But as the Jews welcomed everyone, no matter their religious affiliation, by the 1930’s the place had been turned into just another Catholic town.
The synagogue is now a church, and the town’s records have been altered or destroyed.
The town continues to flourish. It now has factories, offices, a City Hall, and a real hospital. Sadly, very few people know the true origins of this beautiful town, and how the Jews of Vilkaviskis became the Jews of Buenavista.
Papa Bocho and Mamma Lukah
Neftali, my mom, and Mamá Angelita, walking in Mexico City some time in the 1950's
Neftali, my beautiful mother, at 15 years old
Rossendo, my handsome grandfather