Life & Culture

The hidden stories of Barcelona’s Jews

Stephen Burgen traces the Jewish past of the catalan capital


For 600 years, the main street in Barcelona’s former Jewish quarter was named Sant Domènech to “celebrate” the massacre of 300 Jews there on his saint’s day in 1391. But last year Barcelona city council renamed the carrer Sant Domènech del Call, the main street in the city’s former Jewish quarter, after the former chief rabbi Salomò Ben Adret. Was it a sign of a new era for Jews in the Catalan capital? 

There were pogroms all over Spain in 1391 but they were especially intense in Catalonia. In Barcelona, a community that had thrived for centuries and made up around 15% of the population, was wiped out through an all too familiar process of murder, exile and forced conversion.

For the next six centuries Jews were effectively non-existent in Barcelona. Well, not quite. The fascinating study Voces caídas del cielo (Voices from Out of the Blue) by local historian Manu Valentín, published last year, reveals that for a brief period from the late 19th century until the end of the Second World War, Barcelona became a refuge for both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews.  

Valentín, who is a member of Mozaika, a Jewish cultural association based in Barcelona, was researching a book on George Orwell’s stay in the city during the Civil War when he stumbled upon a document dated 1918. It recorded the formal foundation of the Barcelona Jewish Community as an association and the establishment of a shopfront synagogue. He noticed that most of the 17 signatories had Sephardic surnames and discovered they had fled the Ottoman empire.

Prior to this, various Spanish diplomats in Istanbul initiated a phase of what Valentín calls “philo-sephardism” in which they encouraged the government to offer shelter to the thousands of Sephardim in Turkey who had escaped pogroms in southern Russia. 

Adolfo de Montaberry, the Spanish consul in Istanbul from 1867 to 1869, wrote concerning “Jews descended from those that our Catholic kings uprooted from Spanish territory not only still speak the language of the elders, although they write it with Hebrew script, many of them still have the keys and deeds to their houses in Spain, where they hope to return with the tenacious perseverance of their race and with the same stubborn faith that they await the Messiah”. 

In the end, Spain only took in a few hundred, mostly well-connected businessmen who, it was claimed, could give a much-needed boost to the Spanish economy. 

Writing in the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia in 1915, Antonio Suqué, the Spanish consul in Salonica, commented that there was no point in bringing industrialists or farmers “who can’t teach us anything. I believe the only mutually beneficial employment would be in the Barcelona export houses where, thanks to their knowledge of the Orient and their commercial practices they could make an important contribution to our trade relations with those countries that unjustifiably disdain our products”.  

However, in the end it  wasn’t 19th-century philo-Sephardism that brought Ottoman Jews to Barcelona, but the rise of the Young Turks in 1908. 

“The Young Turks were nationalists who wanted to homogenise Turkish society,” says Valentín. “They also insisted that minorities such as Armenians and Jews were no longer exempt from military service.” 

Sephardim who had long since settled in Istanbul, Salonica and Smyra packed up and left. They first went to France as most Ottoman Jews were francophones having been schooled in French at the prestigious Alliance Israélite Universelle schools.

But with the outbreak of the First World War they crossed the Pyrenees to Barcelona. Centuries after being expelled from Spain, they still spoke Ladino. 

“Most of them arrived in Barcelona with nothing but a suitcase but they never intended to stay,” Valentín explains. “The plan was to go to America, so within a few years many of the people who signed the document that established Barcelona’s Jewish community had left for Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay and other Latin American countries.”

While a few, such as the Metzger brothers who sold industrial machinery, became prosperous businessmen, most of those who remained in the city were poor. Many worked as hawkers around the Sant Antoni market while others, especially Yiddish-speaking refugees from the Russian pogroms, were forced into prostitution in the Barri Xinès, Barcelona’s red-light district.

What little good fortune the Ottoman Jews had in Barcelona was short-lived. In 1919, fearing that the contagion of the Russian revolution would spread, Spain started expelling “undesirable foreigners”; in effect, any foreigner who had no visible means of support.

It charted the Manuel Calvo to ship 200 “undesirables” to Odessa. Among them, at the instigation of the Turkish consul in the city, were 40 Ottoman Jews who had been living in Barcelona for at least three years. 
The ship never reached its destination. A week after sailing from Barcelona it struck a mine off the Turkish coast and sank with the loss of 105 lives, 71 of them deportees. 

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 it spelled the end of what had been a brief flowering of Barcelona’s Jewish community. Many were caught in the middle between left and right. Those who had prospered were condemned as capitalists and many of the wealthier Jews left or saw their businesses collectivised. Meanwhile, the right-wing press pointed the finger at poor Jews as suspected communists and anarchists.

Still, as some Jews left the city, many more arrived from all over the world to defend the Republic and, above all, to fight fascism. “Jews from England, the United States and elsewhere made up a disproportionate number of the International Brigades,” says Valentín. “To many, fighting fascism in Spain was merely a continuation of fighting the black shirts on the streets of London. Many died defending the republic.”

The Naftali Botwin company, which formed part of the 150th International Brigade, was made up almost entirely of Jews. It was named after Naftali Botwin, a Polish Jew who was executed for killing a police informer.

The idea of forming a Jewish-only company was proposed to the commissar general of the International Brigades by Albert Nahumi (Arieh Weits), a Jewish leader of the French Communist party. The idea was well received and the company was inaugurated on December 12, 1937, made up of volunteers from Poland, France, Belgium, Palestine and Spain.

Valentín describes how during a lull in the fighting the Botwin company was billeted for two months in the tiny village of Pradell in Tarragona. There, to the amusement of their Spanish comrades, they produced concerts and plays in Yiddish, recreating, as Valentín puts it, “shtetl life on the Ebro”.

When Franco’s troops entered Barcelona in January, 1939 they sacked the two synagogues and stole everything inside them as spoils of war. 

After their victory, the Spanish fascists announced that all Jews who had entered the county since 1931 would be expelled. Jewish children were banned from public schools and births could only be registered if the babies were baptised. From the start of the Civil War until 1942 Franco gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate on Spanish soil.

As early as 1937 the Franco regime ordered the construction of concentration camps for “layabouts, miscreants, politicians, masons, Jews and enemies of the fatherland. Not one Jew, mason or red will remain in our territory.”

In 1940, José Palomo, an Ottoman Jew was arrested by the secret police in Barcelona and taken to the concentration camp at Miranda del Ebro which was run by Paul Winzer, the head of the Gestapo in Spain. Palomo’s business had already been collectivised and he was imprisoned without charge until 1943. On his release he left for Israel with his family. The Miranda del Ebro camp didn’t close until 1947.

By 1942, as it became clear that Germany was unlikely to win the war, Franco toned down his wholehearted support for the Nazi regime, aware that Spain would need new allies — the United States in particular — once the war was over. 

“The Franco regime began a marketing campaign about its treatment of Jews,” says Valentín. “Various individuals had protected Jews despite the government opposing such actions. After 1942, the government began to assume these individual acts as its own.”

More recently, the Spanish state’s more recent bout of philo-Sephardism came to end last September when its offer of Spanish citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled in 1492 closed. The law was passed in 2015 and by the cut-off date of September 30 the government had received over 150,000 applications, half of them in the final month. 

The vast majority of applications came from Latin America, with 33,000 from Mexico, 28,000 from Colombia and 22,000 from Venezuela. A total of around 6,000 applications have been successful so far.

During a process that was far from straightforward applicants had to appear in person in Spain. Ironically, given that for centuries Spain used every possible means to persuade Jews to abandon their religion and culture, applicants also had to demonstrate that they had maintained their faith during the intervening 500 years. 

Under the post-war Franco regime, Jews were tolerated but were expected to be discreet. To this day the Barcelona community, which may now number 4,000, although no one really knows, maintains a low profile and there are virtually no prominent Jews in the city’s political or cultural life.

“It’s a habit from years of coexisting under a Catholic dictatorship,” believes Valentín, who says the city’s community is made up largely of Jews from the Maghreb, Argentina and Israel. “It’s very heterogeneous, but also very divided.”

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