A socialist, feminist, and Zionist, Berta Wainstein de Gerchunoff was a leader in the struggle for the rights of women and children in Argentina. A high school teacher in Buenos Aires, Gerchunoff was active in the Socialist party in the 1910s and early 1920s. She participated in a women’s mock election, published in socialist magazines and journals, and lectured in a Socialist Popular University. After leaving the Party because of anti-semitism, she joined the Argentine branch of WIZO and became its President. Gerchunoff expanded the membership of WIZO exponentially both within Argentina and in other Latin American countries. An indefatigable traveler, she made sure the voices of Latin American Zionist women were heard in international Zionist organizations and raised extensive funds for the creation of the State of Israel.
Education and Family
Berta Wainstein de Gerchunoff (sometimes spelled Bertha) was born in Nikopol, in the Ekaterinoslav province of the Russian Empire on March 18, 1885, the older daughter of Benzión and Paulina Wainstein. In 1890 she moved to Argentina with her parents and her brother Alejandro. Like many Jews of the Russian Pale, the Wainsteins were seeking better opportunities in the Americas and they took advantage of the very generous conditions set up by Argentina after the 1876 passing of the National Law of Immigration that funded travel and housing for desirable immigrants. Berta’s parents dreamed of owning land and living as farmers, and while they had surely heard of the Jewish colonies set up by the Baron Maurice de Hirsch in Argentina, they bought their own land before their trip and settled in a farm in the south of the province of Córdoba. The land turned out not to be adequate for agriculture, and the family reared sheep instead.
When Berta was twelve, they moved to the city of Rosario, where her father was hired by the Dreyfus cereal company to work in grain classification, a job he did before emigrating. There, Berta enrolled in the prestigious Normal School, from which she graduated as an elementary school teacher. The family was Zionist but not Orthodox or particularly religious, and Berta received no formal Jewish education. Her father, however, was a cantor in one of the synagogues in Rosario. At the age of eighteen, following her mother’s death, Berta moved with her brother to Buenos Aires, where she completed her education as a high school teacher at the Instituto del Profesorado N.1, a prestigious Teacher Training College.
In 1908, while working in the Normal School in Rosario, Berta married pediatrician Abraham Gerchunoff. A year later, in 1909, she gave birth to her son Raúl, and two years later to her daughter Paulina. Until her retirement in 1938, she worked as a teacher in several public high schools, including the Instituto Fémina (later called Comercial N.2). Gerchunoff spoke Yiddish and Russian when she arrived in Argentina and soon became a fluent speaker of Spanish, a language she spoke without an accent.
Along with her husband Abraham and members of her extended family, including the prominent journalist and writer Alberto Gerchunoff, Berta enrolled in the Argentine Socialist Party; she became very active in the women’s section, where she carried out pedagogical and feminist activities. In 1909 she joined the Women’s Socialist Center (Centro Socialista Femenino) and participated in its May Day children’s parties. She also gave an array of lectures on topics as diverse as astronomy and literature. She lectured for the Sociedad Luz, a Socialist popular university and, in 1910, along with Alicia Moreau and Armand Moreau, co-founded the Ateneo Popular, a workers’ educational institute, where lectures and other intellectual and educational activities took place regarding matters such as prostitution, alcoholism, and disease prevention (McGee Deutsch 2010, 161; Valobra 2012, 148).
Socialism and Feminism
As part of her quest for women’s rights, Gerchunoff became involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage and political, civil, and social rights. She was treasurer of the Feminist National Union (Unión Feminista Nacional, affiliated with the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, IWSA), founded and presided over by Alicia Moreau and made up of women with Socialist leanings, including Rosalía Navarret, Elisa B. de Bachofen, Consuelo G. de García, María Guarneri, Adela García Salaberry, Clotilde Rossi, and Josefina L. de Mantecón. She was part of the editorial board of the Feminist National Union’s journal, Nuestra Causa, along with other members such as the writer Alfonsina Storni, and wrote children’s stories and articles on education and the international women’s movement.
Gerchunoff participated in the women’s mock election of March 7, 1920, organized by the Feminist National Union, the Feminist National Party (Partido Feminista Nacional, headed by Julieta Lanteri), and the Association for Women's Rights (Asociación Pro Derechos de La Mujer, founded by Elvira Rawson). This mock election, inspired by a similar activity by French suffragettes, was scheduled to coincide with national parliamentary elections in order to stimulate a discussion on women’s right to vote. Gerchunoff was a poll watcher in the district of Balvanera, along with Blanca C. de Hume, Adela Bonde, and Rosa Ratriwzky. The main progressive forces in Argentina at the time were represented in this mock election: Alicia Moreau carried the Socialist Party’s program, Elvira Rawson stood for the Radical Civic Union, the ruling party at the time, and Lanteri presented an autonomous feminist proposal. Approximately four thousand women participated.
In the early 1920s, Gerchunoff, became a regular contributor to Fortitudo, a journal of physical education. In her writings, she encouraged women to participate in sports and gymnastics. She was also actively involved in the Teachers' Mutual Benefit Society (Mutualidad del Magisterio), a teachers’ union.
Leaving the Socialist Party for Zionism
Gerchunoff left the Socialist Party along with other Jewish socialists, including her husband, to protest antisemitic comments by party leader Juan B. Justo in reference to the 1913 ritual murder trial of Menachem Mendel Beilis in Kiev. Justo had a well-known antipathy to all religions, including Judaism, and he publicly stated in 1923 that “in questions of religion and superstition I consider everything possible ... [and] if the Jews are capable of practicing circumcisions, they might observe other blood rituals as well” (Mirelman 2018, 46–75), a statement that caused strong discomfort and uneasiness in the Argentine Jewish community. Nonetheless, Gerchunoff and her family remained close to many Socialist leaders, such as Nicolás Repetto and Alicia Moreau, Justo’s second wife. Gerchunoff and Alicia Moreau shared a vacation home in La Cumbrecita, Córdoba, that remained in Berta’s family until 2019. She spent summers in this house with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and engaged them in a flurry of activities that included crafts, reading, and hikes in the mountains.
After leaving the Socialist party, Gerchunoff joined the Women’s Committee of the Jewish Hospital Ezra in 1932, where her husband worked as a pediatrician. The commitment to the rights of women, children, and the dispossessed that had guided her Socialist activism was soon deployed through her participation in Zionism. Immediately following her husband’s death in 1933, she joined OSFA, Argentine Feminine Zionist Organization (Organización Sionista Femenina Argentina), the local branch of WIZO, the Women's International Zionist Organization. She soon became Vice-President and served as President from 1936 to 1948, “overseeing a vast expansion of members and centers” (McGee Deutsch 2010, 227).
Gerchunoff turned OSFA into an important center for women’s political and social activities. She traveled all over Argentina opening branches in large cities and small towns. Membership in Argentina during her presidency reached 24,000. OSFA members remember Gerchunoff’s unassuming personality and her indefatigable commitment to the organization. In the 1930s she became very active in WIZO´s efforts to protect women and children as Nazism spread throughout Europe, and she involved OSFA in founding institutions to house orphans and displaced people in the aftermath of the Shoah. She founded WIZO centers in many Latin American countries, including Chile, Uruguay, and Mexico, and she also visited smaller communities in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala. In Guatemala she became very close to President Jacobo Arbenz. She served as director of WIZO’s Latin American publicity and propaganda department and edited and distributed publications throughout the region. WIZO President Rebecca Sieff called her the “mother, guide, and leader of the organization in Argentina and Latin America” (McGee Deutsch 2010, 229).
In 1939 Gerchunoff joined the executive board of WIZO and travelled often to the United States and Israel to represent Argentine and Latin American branches. She started learning English at fifty and became fluent enough to address international organization branches. She remained committed to Zionism until the end of her life and led fundraising campaigns for the State of Israel. Gerchunoff’s granddaughter Amalia Sofia Saionz de Polack was also an OSFA and WIZO leader.
Berta Gerchunoff died in Buenos Aires, surrounded by children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, on January 7, 1974.
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