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Nuestra Historia - The Jewish merchants

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When introducing the most recent articles in this column, we noted that between annexation in 1846 and the arrival of the railroad in 1879, there were three transformative developments in Las Vegas. We have related two of them, the Americanization of the Old Town Plaza and the emergence of the Romero dynasty.

The third major development was the arrival of the Jewish merchants, who made Las Vegas a thriving Jewish enclave, and home to the first synagogue in New Mexico. Aside from the major socio-economic impact the early Jewish settlers had on our town, an especially close and unique relationship was established between them and the Hispanic community. The next few columns will recount their story.

Most of the early Jewish immigrants to New Mexico were from the German-speaking areas of western Europe. Always referred to as German Jews, these first Jewish settlers immigrated here for many reasons, including the avoidance of persecution or conscription into the military in their homeland, or simply to find a better life in the United States, of which New Mexico was then a new territory.         

Like many other early immigrants, they arrived here alone or as a pair of brothers, and after getting settled were joined by siblings, spouses, and other extended family. In 1860, the entire Jewish population in New Mexico was estimated to have been a mere 34, and by 1882 they had grown to 220.

We will recount the arrival of Jewish immigrants in the 1800s, not the long-time presence in New Mexico of the Sephardic or Crypto Jews, about whom much has been written. These were Iberian Europeans who came here as early as the 17th century, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and avoiding persecution in New Spain by keeping their faith secret (crypto) and migrating away from the authorities to the far northern reaches of the Spanish empire, including New Mexico.

Among the first German Jews to arrive in Las Vegas were brothers Joseph and Emmanuel Rosenwald of Dietenhofen, Bavaria, Germany, who first arrived in New York in 1853. They made their way west and settled in Las Vegas in 1862. Others arriving here at about the same time were Sigmund Nahm and Isidor Stern (Stern & Nahm), and Samuel and Yetta Kohn.

For some years before, several German Jews had settled in Santa Fe, including the Jaffa and Spiegelberg brothers, and the Staab family. Other early Jews in New Mexico were the Beuthner brothers of Taos, the Zeckendorfs of Albuquerque, the Bierbauum brothers of Mora, and the Moise family of Guadalupe County. (The claim to having been the first Jewish settler in New Mexico belongs to Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg, who opened a store in Santa Fe in 1846).

Unlike the non-Hispanic settlers who came here after the arrival of the railroad, and settled east of the Gallinas River and away from the Hispanic population, the early Jewish merchants established their businesses and homes in Old Town. They also quickly learned the Spanish language, and became an integral part of the Hispanic community, some even giving their children Spanish names. (Charles Ilfeld and his family made their home on South Gonzales Street in Trinidad Romero’s first home, which he sold to Ilfeld. Ludwig Ilfeld would be the longtime chief of the E. Romero Hose & Fire Co., succeeding founder Eugenio Romero, and the Rosenwald family also lived in Old Town, building two homes near the Plaza).  

The Rosenwald brothers established a mercantile store on the Old Town Plaza in the 1860s, later expanding the business and erecting the large building still located at the southeast end of the Plaza, which was known as E. Rosenwald and Son. Emmanuel built his family home immediately behind the family’s mercantile store, at the corner of Moreno and South Gonzales Streets. (The impressive three-story frame house served for many years as the home economics department of the West Las Vegas Schools, and was torn down several decades ago).

Emmanuel’s son Cecilio was born in Las Vegas in 1873 and educated in the local Jesuit College. (Later I will devote one or more columns to El Distrito de Las Escuelas, including the early formal education provided in Las Vegas by the Jesuits, the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Loretto).    

Cecilio Rosenwald established himself as one of the leading businessmen of Las Vegas, expanding into ranching and land development.

Much later Cecilio also established the first amusement-related company in Las Vegas, building the famous Coronado Theatre at the southwest corner of Sixth Street and University Avenue, probably the most ornate edifice ever erected in Las Vegas. (Pictured). The building’s elegant original façade, with its imposing arch and intricate carving, is apparently extant under its modern-day renovation.
The Rosenwald family was only one of several that would form the nucleus of the extraordinary Jewish presence in Las Vegas.

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Next: Charles Ilfeld, the Taichert family, and the first synagogue in New Mexico.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.