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Category: History

255. historic photo 5

Iglesia de Pilar, Buenos Aires

Thanks to empedrados on Flickr for this rather fuzzy photo of the Iglesia de Pilar. Recoleta Cemetery is located immediately to the left of the church & the grounds in front look rather savage… but the police seem to have everything under control.

No date given for the photo.

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228. historic photo 4

AGN, 1953 pic, Recoleta Cemetery

The National Archives (Archivo General de la Nación) house a collection of about 50 historic photos of Recoleta Cemetery. The above photo, taken from the top of the entrance gate, dates from 1953 & shows that very little has changed over the past 50 years.

But compare this photograph to one from 1923 to see dramatic change… in the space of 30 years, all the highrises which now overlook the cemetery were built.

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211. historic photo 3

Entrance gate, Recoleta Cemetery

Even though I don’t have an exact date for this photo, my best guess would be early 1900s based on carriages & style of dress. The original photo sits in the Archivo General de la Nación, but this version was found on Wikipedia. The entrance gate is almost the same today with two interesting changes:

  • Street lamps have been removed.
  • Symbols along the frieze originally had each background panel painted in some unknown, darker color. Today the reverse is true with symbols painted in ochre on a white background panel.

What I’d give to be in that spot back then with my digital camera!

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202. asociación calpense de socorros mútuos ◊

Asociación Calpense, Recoleta Cemetery

There’s a castle in the cemetery, but most people never see it. Stuck in a corner down a dead-end aisle, the organization whose members are be buried here often go unnoticed.

The Calpense Association for Mutual Assistance was one of many groups formed by immigrants from a specific region in Europe to assist new arrivals from their hometown. These organizations founded hospitals (important when immigrants could speak little Spanish) & gave women an outlet away from the home. So where did the Calpenses come from?

Phoenicians trading in the Mediterranean 3,000 years ago christened a landmark mountain “Calpe.” Called Gibraltar today, it has been a part of the British Commonwealth since the early 1700s. The castle design originated from a coat of arms granted by Queen Isabel—the same one who funded the voyage of Columbus. Remember it was Spanish territory at that time. The coat of arms became incorporated into the current Gibraltar flag & then reproduced in Recoleta Cemetery. The vault is a perfect copy of the castle:

City of Gibraltar, post

The hanging key also forms part of the vault… look down at the doorstep to see it:

Asociación Calpense, Recoleta Cemetery

The interior is wide & spacious, & the stained glass on the back wall is worth checking out:

Asociación Calpense, Recoleta Cemetery

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197. not only for catholics

A single Jewish tomb reminds visitors of the multi-denominational character of Buenos Aires. Although it sits unoccupied today, this iswas the only tomb in Recoleta Cemetery decorated with a Star of David:

Benjamín Breitman, Recoleta Cemetery

When the cemetery was founded in 1822, the majority of the city’s population was Catholic so it was blessed accordingly. During the presidency of Bartolomé Mitre the blessing was officially removed when he insisted that a prominent member of the Masonic Order be buried there. Or so the story goes. These days, all public cemeteries in Buenos Aires are non-denominational. However given the conservative class of the families present, Recoleta Cemetery remains 99% Catholic.

Not much is known about Benjamín Breitman or how he came to purchase a plot, but the history of Jewish burials in Argentina began with the establishment of the community in Argentina. Founded in the 1860s the Templo Libertad on Plaza Lavalle may not be the oldest synagogue in Buenos Aires, but it was the most important for early Jewish immigrants:

Templo Libertad

Jewish tradition foregoes ostentatious burials, given that all are equal after death. The largest non-Catholic cemetery during the early years of the Jewish community in Buenos Aires was the Cementerio de Victoria (now Plaza 1º de Mayo). Sponsored mainly by the Protestant community & 50% funded by the UK, Jews & Protestants were buried together at the same location. Popularly referred to as the Cementerio de los Disidentes, it filled to capacity during the 1871 yellow fever epidemic. Back then if you weren’t Catholic, then you must be a dissident.

The Jewish community had an opportunity to claim part of Chacarita Cemetery when it opened but opted to wait for their own burial ground. In 1912 the Cementerio de Liniers opened (actually just outside the city limits of Buenos Aires) exclusively for Jews & was mainly for those of Ashkenazi descent. Being buried there still remains a sign of high status within the community. Jews of Moroccan descent—many referred to as “impure” based on their connections with the mafia—opened a cemetery south of Buenos Aires in Avellaneda. It is currently closed. In 1936, another cemetery was opened for poorer Jews in Tablada & the newest cemetery in Ciudadela is typically for those of Sephardic descent. All these cemeteries are closed to visitors.

Jewish funeral rites are unique but unfortunately beyond the scope of this blog. Many thanks to Leonor Slavsky for sharing her investigations at talks sponsored by the Instituto Histórico.


Update (30 Jul 2010): Earlier this year the plaque with the Star of David on the Benjamín Breitman family tomb was removed. Reasons are unknown for the removal, but Marcelo unexpectedly found another vault with possible Jewish symbolism.

Benjamín Breitman, Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

Update (18 mar 2011): According to a comment below, the plaque fell from the tomb from neglect & is now stored in the Administration office for safekeeping.

Update (31 May 2013): According to the Find A Grave website, Benjamín Breitman passed away on 04 Mar 2012 & was buried in his family tomb the following day. Thanks to Raúl for the info!


196. mhn update

Just finished updating the Monumento Histórico Nacional page & it was like writing several posts.

Besides naming all tombs considered part of the nation’s heritage, the list is now ordered by year. Some surprising trends appeared when looking at the list in that way. Reading the decrees also took a considerable amount of time, but it was well worthwhile to compare different governments & their attitude toward Recoleta Cemetery & conservation. Especially bizarre is that since democracy was restored in 1983 not a single tomb was added to the national heritage list until 2007. No wonder the place was falling apart.