Barcelona and the Jews

Since third grade I have always wanted to go Barcelona. In third grade I created a massive report on the city. It was on black construction paper. I cut out pictures of Catalan costumes; wrote about the weather, geography, and food; used the Encyclopedia Britannica as my source (since the Internet wasn’t invented in the ’50s!). Little did I know that my desire to go then would be boosted now by my interest in art and architecture. If you want architecture, Barcelona is full of it, especially the architecture of Antoni Gaudi.

For a week in late October 2019, my sister and I went on a tour of Barcelona with Road Scholar. I could have stayed longer. There was so much I didn’t get to see.

The first day, a Sunday, we took a tour bus up to Montjuic. Montjuic, with its view of the harbor, was the beginning of Barcelona. Joan Miro’s museum and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya are there as well as structures built for both the 1929 World’s Fair and the 1992 Olympics. A Mies van der Rohe pavilion is also on the site. Going back further in time, there is a 17th century fort. Our time on the mountain top was limited, so we didn’t get to see any of this. Further and further back in time there once was a Jewish cemetery. According to a document I read, the cemetery dated back to the 9th century.

As you all know, Spain wasn’t a very healthy place for Jews in the 14th century. They were invited at point of death to convert to Christianity (hence the conversos) or to leave the country. Some left with Columbus on his expeditions to the new world. Many came to South America and emigrated north as the inquisition came after them. I wonder how many people of Spanish ancestry living in South America and the US have Jewish roots and don’t even know it.

Below the mountain is the Gothic quarter – the original walled (no longer) city of winding, criss-crossing streets where I could never manage my normally excellent sense of direction when we were on our own. Even maps of the place were useless as streets in this maze came to a dead end, turned sharply, changed names, and always seemed to empty out on Plaza Real where we began. But when we were with our tour guide we were okay. We stood in front of a “palace” where Isabella and Ferdinand stayed. We stood in front of one church after another and marveled at the decorative work on the stone. And then we stood in front of a building called the Lieutenant Palace built in the 16th century. And we noticed blocks of stone that had Hebrew writing on them. They were tombstones. At first we thought, how cool, Hebrew writing in an unfamiliar place. Later I had second thoughts.

Sometime in the 15th century the area containing the Jewish graves on Montjuic was granted to a Benedictine order and the graveyard and its history are now lost to antiquity. The graves were looted and the gravestones stolen and sold for building supplies, hence the headstones on the building we stood before. Even the Jewish dead were not allowed to rest in peace. Only in recent times has an organization attempted to have the cemetery designated a Cultural Site of National Interest so that archaeological explorations can take place.

I was glad I got to fulfill a long held desire. I might even go back to Barcelona to explore areas we didn’t have time for. But the explanation of the headstones and of course Barcelona’s history vis-à-vis Jews have tempered my good feelings about this cosmopolitan city. I know it was a long time ago. But it wasn’t a one-time event in the annals of Jewish history, was it? The Holocaust is still raw in many family’s memories. And today in New York, Jews are being attacked in greater numbers than ever. It is a sad commentary on the human condition that for no good reason, wherever we go in whatever age we are in, Jews continue to be persecuted.

I wish you peace and love.

Author: mwolpin

Member SCBWI; children's book author; NYMets fan; cat lover

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