Reflections on a Visit to Spain: Franco, the Sephardim, and the Holocaust

By Regensteiner, Henry | Midstream, March-April 2008 | Go to article overview

Reflections on a Visit to Spain: Franco, the Sephardim, and the Holocaust


Regensteiner, Henry, Midstream


On a European journey last year, I participated in a guided tour of Barcelona. It was a Sunday. No work was going on in deference to the worshippers attending religious services. Our guide conducted us around the old cathedral into a dark and deserted side-street, which had the appearance of a narrow alleyway.

Because of my reading in Spanish medieval history, I felt as if transported back to the oppressive period of the Spanish Inquisition. What intensified this impression was the aspect of a solidly built old building that facing the facade of the church stood on the other side of the street. And then I noticed that the building was joined apparently with the cathedral by a sort of bridge.

Fascinated and puzzled by this structure, I pointed it out to our tour guide and asked her if she knew its purpose. Startled at first by the question, she recovered from her surprise. She turned to the group explaining briefly that the building, which used to belong to a Jew, was currently a center of the civil administration. There was no further comment, and it could be assumed that the mostly gentile tourists thought the former Jewish owner had sold his property. A minority, however, thought otherwise. From a knowledge of Spanish history, it could be inferred that the stately building had been confiscated by the authorities during the Spanish Inquisition.

The guide of our tour felt obviously relieved that the American visitors were satisfied with her explanation and would not ask her any other embarrassing questions relating to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. And she would not enlighten them voluntarily. Instead, she proceeded with her city tour pointing out architectural and technological developments. The only departure from this program came as the sightseeing bus climbed up Montjuc which she translated as mountain of the Jews. According to the information we heard, some wealthy Jews used to have their homes on this hill overlooking Barcelona. If this was so, then some of them may have been influential court Jews referred to by Lippman Bodoff. On the other hand, one could mention that a Jewish congregation has a burial society (Chevra Kadisha), which has the solemn duty to prepare a body for burial. This society formed the nucleus of a congregation. It existed in Spain where it is mentioned first in the fourteenth century. Acting for the Barcelona Jewish Community, the Chevra Kadisha may have requested and obtained permission to locate its cemetery on this high ground henceforth known as Montjuc. What is certain is that the hill was the site of the 1992 Olympic Games.

In view of our visit to Spain, it seems to me that the Jewish experience there is a part of world history. That's why I feel that the expulsion of Jews from Spain while Columbus was making ready for his first journey of discovery in 1492 cannot he suppressed or passed over. The history and tragedy of these Jews, which predates the Nazi Holocaust by many centuries, has not only been researched by scholars. It has also inspired writers including the poet Heinrich Heine who was incensed by the injustices committed.

My voyage to Spain made me recall my acquaintance with a Holocaust survivor who shared with me an interest in the works of Heinrich Heine. Both of us tried in the 1990s to bring about the restoration of the vandalized Heinrich Heine statue located in the Bronx. Heine's interest in Spain became for us a topic of conversation. My friend who had escaped from Nazi persecution and found refuge in neutral Switzerland spoke also with unexpected enthusiasm about what the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco had allegedly done to save Jews from the Germans. Though I wasn't as well informed as my friend, I knew that the caudillo had risen to power with the help of Hitler and Mussolini. So I objected in disbelief recalling the stories of the destruction and savagery engendered by Franco's soldiers during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). …

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