Baron Hirsch’s Brazilian Jewish Farming Communities

This post contains a short history of the first Brazilian Jewish farming communities supported by Baron Hirsch’s legacy and some references. You can read about eyewitness descriptions of these communities here.

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Baron Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Agency (JCA) in 1891  “to assist and promote the emigration of Jews from any part of Europe or Asia… and to form and establish colonies in various parts of North and South America ….”. And during the Baron’s lifetime, the Agency supported farming communities for Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Argentina, the United States, and  Canada.

But after the Baron died in 1896, bequeathing seven million pounds sterling (equivalent to $US 1.12 billion in today’s dollars) to the JCA,1  a newly elected board of trustees voted to use some of this windfall to expand JCA’s colonization activities to southern Brazil,2where the JCA purchased land in 1902.3

For those willing to emigrate to these colonies the JCA offered to ” cover travel expenses and provide each settler with 25-30 hectares [60-75 acres] of land, a house, agricultural implements, two teams of oxen, two cows, one horse and an allowance that varied in accordance with the size of the family, payable once it had become self-sufficient.”  4

Philippson (Filipson), 720 miles south of São Paulo

Homesteaders first reached the JCA’s first Brazilian colony, Philippson, or Filipson in Portuguese, in 1904. Philippson was located near the city of Santa Maria in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The JCA had not yet built the houses they had promised, so the thirty-seven families were housed in barracks. It took months for the settlers to be assigned land and, once assigned, they discovered it was very hard to farm.

Read more

Farm if You Could

Princeton Theological Seminary. The complete book can be read at the link.

Unlike the Argentine colonies on the flat pampas, Philippson was located in a hilly region that was really more suitable for grazing than farming. And, the great majority of these settlers had no farming experience. Then there were the droughts, locusts, and even typhoid fever. 5  It must have seemed hopeless, as confirmed by a French student, Pierre Denis, who visited both Philippson and the Argentine JCA colonies in 1910.

Denis, who later became De Gaulle’s finance minister during World War II, 6 concluded that “the success of this venture [Philippson] has not been remarkable and. . . will probably remain an isolated experiment. In Argentina, the Jewish colonies have multiplied and are very numerous and the Jews form an important element of the agricultural population, but there is no reason to believe that they will ever hold a like position in Rio Grande”. 7

JCA did take some measures to improve conditions in Philippson. In 1908, the JCA staff established a dairy as another source of income. To address the children’s educational needs, a teacher from France was sent to Lisbon to learn Portuguese before coming to Philippson.

But these improvements were too late. The settlers had discovered that there were urban centers in Rio Grande do Sul where life was easier, both elementary and high schools were available, and livelihoods could be made through commerce.

By 1909 the majority of the settlers had left Philippson.8  with most settling in the city of Santa Maria, only nine miles away, or the state’s capital, Porto Alegre, about 200 hundred miles distant. In that same year, Porto Alegre’s first minion was held (the quorum of ten men necessary for Jewish prayer sessions ). 9.

Was Creating Jewish Farmers the Goal ?

The northernmost marker is Quatro Irmãos and Philippson is right below it. The marker on the left is Moises Ville, Baron Hirsch’s first colony in Argentina.

So did the JCA retreat southwest to Argentina? No. Instead, in 1909 they bought land for a much larger Brazilian colony a little further north in Rio Grande. Philippson was built on a twenty-two square mile tract of land. The new colony, Quatro Irmãos, consisted of 362 square miles. Why this massive expansion after Philippson’s lackluster success? Could it be that converting Russian Jews into successful farmers was not the principal goal of these Brazilian colonies?

Franz Philippson’s Belgian estate

Baron Hirsch was not the only Belgian to make a fortune in railroads. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Belgian financial community was underwriting the development and expansion of railroads all over the world.10.  The Philippson colony was named for the Vice-President of the JCA, Franz Philippson, a Belgian banker and president of the Brussels Jewish community.

Philippson had built the railroads in the Belgian Congo. He then became president and owner of the Compaigne Auxiliaire de Chemins du Fer au Bresil which In 1898  won a major contract to build and maintain railroads in Rio Grande do Sul. The Compaigne then opened an office in Santa Maria, just fourteen miles from the site of the future Philippson colony. 11  

Were the Railroad Contracts the Real Objective ?

By 1902 Compaigne Auxiliaire controlled most of the railroads in the state 12  and, by 1905, controlled all of them and held the contract for the completion of the railroad grid. 13This business interest was a  key factor in the JCA Board’s decision to expand into Brazil and to open a second colony even when the first one was failing. For, in Rio Grande Philippson and the JCA Board saw a confluence of business and charitable interests. 14 

Staying within the by-laws that required the JCA to “assist and promote Jewish emigration”, 15  the Board realized they could use JCA funds to open immigrant farming colonies near the Brazilian railroad lines. These colonies would satisfy the stipulation in all government contracts that “obliged all foreign railroad construction companies within 15 years [of signing a contract] to settle along the railroads they built one thousand native or immigrant farmers . . . ”. 16.

Excerpt from the 1907 Brazilian law regarding immigration. Library of Congress.17

And the immigrants could bring in additional profits. in 1907, just two years before the JCA purchased the land for the second colony, the Brazilian government passed a law that made settling immigrants quite lucrative. Under the new law,  railroad companies would receive “$200 for each house constructed . . . ; $100 [per family] when the family has been settled for six months; $200 [per family] when . . . settled for a year. . . ; $5,000 for each group of 50 rural lots occupied by families . . . ”. 18

And Look at All That Lumber Waiting to be Sold

Also, Quatro Irmãos had 50,000 hectares of forest. This made that land very attractive for the JCA Board members for whom the commercialization of timber was as important, if not more so, as agriculture. 19  These vast forests of pines and cedars could supply substantial profits, as lumber was in high demand in nearby Argentina. 20  In fact, the colonists were forbidden to deforest their plots without JCA approval. .21

Were the Farmers Just a Means to an End ?

So, in a commercial context, the expansion to this new colony makes good sense. It also explains why the JCA did not bother to supply competent agricultural advisors or even rudimentary housing. In Philippson immigrants at least had barracks to live in.  In the second colony, Quatro Irmãos, there weren’t even barracks available. Newly arrived families were housed on the homesteads of earlier immigrants until the barracks for the new immigrants were built. Then families often waited months for their homestead to be assigned. 22  

The lack of agricultural advice was fatal. Many of Quatro Irmãos’ would-be farmers suffered worthless crops or none at all.  The land, better fit for grazing, could be farmed if one knew how.  But most of these settlers didn’t. Neither did the gentleman sent to administer Quatro Irmãos, Mr. Rosenberg, who knew nothing of farming, a fact readily admitted in JCA correspondence. 23.  For many years, questions could only be addressed to Mr.  Tisserand, the agricultural counselor at the JCA office in Paris.  I imagine that by the time the answers arrived the planting season would have been over. In any event, Mr. Tisserand thought that the Quatro Irmãos soil was only good for planting cassava and peanuts. 24 

Entrance to the Quatro Irmãos Cemetery

By 1915, three years after Quatro Irmão’s founding, only one-third of the original settlers remained.25.  And the next year, 1916,  found the colony’s administrators asking the JCA in Paris to cease or at least minimize new immigration, as the colony could not handle any more. 26  

The Rich Legacy of These Brazilian Jewish Farmers

Within twenty years, almost all of the few thousand immigrants who came to settle in these Brazilian farming communities had moved to urban areas. But even though the communities themselves were not successful, the immigrants were.

Some descendants of the colonists reached levels of success not even dreamed of in Russia. The descendants of Quatro Irmãos settler Gregorio Ioschpe now own Iochpe-Maxion, the world’s largest producer of steel wheels, with thirty-two factories across the globe.

Rally in Porto Alegre for democratic rights, April 14, 1984, as covered in Zero Hora

Mauricio Sirotsky, who was born in Quatro Irmãos, founded the RBS group, which owns the major newspaper in Porto Alegre, Zero Hora, along with twenty TV stations, twenty-four radio stations, and seven other newspapers.27

The Steinbruch family who today owns Brazil’s largest steel company, CSN, with assets of over $US 22 billion as well as Brazil’s largest textile firm and a major bank are descendants of immigrants who settled in the Philipson colony. In Philippson the Steinbruch brothers were the keepers of the sacred scroll, the Torah. Abraham Steinbruch performed the ritual slaughter of kosher beef as well as the circumcision rites, weddings, and other ceremonies.28

And Moacyr Scliar (1937-2011), one of the most respected Brazilian writers of his generation, was the son of Quatro Irmãos colonists. In many of his novels you can read about what happened to the Jewish colonists after they moved to the city.


Read more about life in the Brazilian colonies in  On a Clear April Morning. This is the first literary work to reflect the Brazilian  Jewish community.  Finally it is  available in English.

For additional information, see

The official history of the Jewish Colonization Agency, An Outstretched Arm.  

This document is on which might require setting up a free account. 


Jewish Colonization in Rio Grande Do Sul, 1904-1925,  by the foremost U.S. authority on these communities,  Jeff Lesser, of Emory University.  This book was published in 1991 and is out of print.  But it is available at the Library of Congress, the NY Public Library and many university libraries. Check on to see where it is available near you entering your zip code or town.

We can also offer a long list of resources in Portuguese. Just send  a request through the reply form below.

  1. LESSER, Jeff (1991). Jewish Colonization in Rio Grande Do Sul, 1904-1925, São Paulo: Centro de Estudos de Demografia Historica da America Latina, p. 24 []
  2. GRITTI, Isabel Rosa (1997). Imigração judaica no Rio Grande do Sul: a Jewish Colonization Association e a colonização de Quatro Irmãos, Porto Alegre: Martins Livreiro-Editor, p. 19. []
  3. NORMAN, Theodore (1985). An outstretched arm: a history of the Jewish Colonization Association, London: Routledge & K. Paul, p. 90  Also read an account of the status of the JCA in 1906 here []
  4. Falbel, Nachman. “Jewish agricultural settlement in Brazil,”  Jewish History (2007) 21, p. 329. []
  5. COSTA, Geraldino da. “Colônia Philippson,” in Anos de Amor, a Imigração Judaica no Rio Grande do Sul, edited by Jacques Wainberg, Porto Alegre: Federação Israelita do Rio Grande do Sul, 2004 p. 1; and LESSER, Jeff (1989). “Pawns of the Powerful, Jewish Immigration to Brazil 1904-1945,” PhD diss., New York University, pp. 27-57. []
  6. OULMONT, Philippe (2012). Pierre Denis, Français libre et citoyen du monde: entre Monnet et de Gaulle, Paris: Nouveau Monde editions, p. 272 []
  7. DENIS, Pierre (1911). Brazil London: T.F. Unwin, p. 296 []
  8. LESSER (1991), Jewish Colonization in Rio Grande…, p. 47 []
  9. BACK, Leon (1956). “Comunidades Judaicas,” in Enciclopedia Rio-Grandense, Canoas: Editora Regional, vol. 4, p. 324 []
  10. DIAS, José Roberto de Souza (1986). Caminhos de ferro do Rio Grande do Sul, São Paulo: Editora Rios, pp. 99-103. []
  11. HEUFFEL, Evelyne (2012). “Philippson: uma colônia judaica singular?,” WebMosaica 4, p. 124,   []
  12. LESSER (1991), Jewish Colonization in Rio Grande…, p. 29. []
  13. GRITTI, p. 39 []
  14. LESSER (1989Pawns of the Powerful, p. 25 []
  15. ROZENBLUM, Serge-Allain (2006). Le Baron de Hirsch, Un financier au service de l’humanité, Paris: Punctum Editions, p. 254 []
  16. ALLEGRE, CH ” Franz Philippson, banquier: 1871-1914,” diss., ULB, History Department, 1997-1998, quoted in HEUFFEL, Evelyne (2012). , p. 124,   []
  17. US DEPARTMENT OF STATE. ” Brazilian Immigration Regulations, 1907 Presidential Decree No. 6455 of April 19, 1907,  in Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, Washington: GPO., 1910, p 102. []
  18. Ibid.  []
  19. GRITTI,  pp. 47 and 63. []
  20. CUNHA, Ernesto A Lassance (1908)  Rio Grande do Sul, Contribuição para o estudo de suas condiçōes econômicas.  Rio de Janeiro: Impresa Nacional, p. 11. []
  21. CARNEIRO, Maria Luiza Tucci (2003) Preface to Memorias da Colônia de Quatro Irmãos, by Marcos Feldman, São Paulo: Editora Maayanot, p.24 []
  22.  IOLOVITCH, Marcos (2020). On a Clear April Morning, Brookline: Academic Studies Press, pp. 11-12. []
  23. Gritti., p. 41. []
  24. Ibid. pp. 54- 55 []
  25. LESSER, Jeffrey (1996) “Colonial Survival and Foreign Relations in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil: The Jewish Colonization Association Colony of Quatro Irmãos, 1904–1925.” In The Jewish Diaspora in Latin America, edited by David Shenin and Lois Barr,  New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 145-148 []
  26. Gritti, p. 43. []
  27. NAIDITCH, Suzana. “A história da RBS,”, May 13, 2011. []
  28. BACK (1956) , p. 323. and SCLIAR, Moacyr (1991), Caminhos da Esperanca/Pathways of Hope, The Jewish Presence in Rio Grande do Sul. Porto Alegre: Instituto Cultural Judaico Marc Chagall, p. 4. []

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