July 19, 2011
The Rough Guide
In Barcelona’s Old City, there’s a narrow street off the well-trod tourist path that leads to what was once the Jewish quarter. In 1391, 100 years before the official start of the Inquisition, Barcelona massacred many and expelled the rest of its Jews, who historians say made up as much as 20 percent of the population. The City Hall in Plaça Sant Jaume was built on land taken from some of these families.
I was there with my family this past week, thumbing through the Rough Guide, when I stumbled upon this backstory, written as an aside to the long architectural history of the beautiful square.
I didn’t mean to make this vacation a working trip, following the trials and tribulations of Europe’s Jews, long gone or still around. But it’s hard not to. When I was in Poland last year with a group of journalists, one of them called the country “a Jewish graveyard.”
On this trip, I began to think my colleague may as well have been talking about all of Europe.
We followed some terse tourist signs beyond the Plaça to El Call, the ancient Jewish quarter. It was never a ghetto. Barcelona’s Jews were free to live where they pleased and do business with whom they wished. Until they weren’t, of course.
We got lost, until we came across a kosher wine and Judaica shop called El Call. The owner pointed us toward Sinagoga Mayor de Barcelona. It is now a tiny room, originally excavated from beneath the city building in the early 1990s. It is Europe’s oldest synagogue, dating back to Roman times.
Of the long, rich history of Barcelona’s Jews, that was what remained — a room the size of a Bel Air walk-in closet.
Late that afternoon, we took a taxi to an address on the outskirts of town. It was Shabbat. I knew we had arrived at the Comunitat Jueva Atid de Catalunya, one of the city’s three synagogues, when I spotted the guard outside an otherwise unadorned wall.
We walked in to hear a syncopated Spanish guitar melody. Given what I’d seen during the day, I was fully prepared to spend the evening with a handful of elderly, nostalgic Jews, remnants. But the voices and clapping came from a room bursting with young Spaniards, teenagers mostly, and their charismatic woman rabbi. Their summer-camp energy was familiar, the melodies and music wonderfully Spanish. Some 5,000 Jews live in and around Barcelona, among them many Israelis, North African immigrants and expats, and they have created, or re-created, a deeply attached, welcoming Jewish community.
Isn’t that the European Jewish story? Birth, efflorescence, death and now a small, steady rebirth.
It was the same in Amsterdam, which we had visited just before. Our bed and breakfast happened to be in Nieuwmarkt Square, a relatively quiet area one canal away from the pot and hookers. I sat there, in the welcome sun, sipping my Heineken, reading up on the neighborhood. Nieuwmarkt Square, according to the Rough Guide, is at the border of the old Jewish quarter. More than 100,000 Jews had lived there from the 1300s — many of them Spanish and Portuguese refugees from the Inquisition. They created a nearly unparalleled urban Jewish life, until the Nazis invaded Holland and rounded up the Jews from among their good Dutch neighbors. The holding pen for these Jews? Nieuwmarkt Square, right where I was sitting. It was circled in barbed wire and turned into a temporary prison for Jews awaiting transport to Auschwitz.
Though we set out to make a minyan in Amsterdam — there are a couple — we couldn’t because of a timing foul-up. But we did spend hours at the Jewish museum and the Esnoga Synagogue — as grand and impressive a shul as I’ve ever seen.
And then there was the Anne Frank House. A two-hour line snakes out from the ticket booth. The masses are drawn to that house, wanting to climb up the steep stairs, to go behind the secret passage hidden by the swinging bookshelf and into her room.
Why? Why, I wondered, in a city that offers so much competition and distraction, is this the No. 1 tourist site? Partly, of course, because of the words of her diary, which has been translated into 78 languages and has touched millions.
But maybe it’s also because, through her diary, she brings to life the missing voice. City by city, there is a Jewish religious and cultural revival in Europe. But when you travel through these countries as a tourist, you also have to realize, if only by reading between the lines of the guidebooks, that it is also a continent of silenced voices, of untold stories, of a displaced and murdered people. There are a jillion cathedrals and paintings to see of one Jew — Jesus — but the stories of the other millions have disappeared.
On the wall of the Anne Frank House is a quote from her diary, written just before her capture and murder:
I’ll make my voice heard.
I’ll go out into the world
And work for mankind!
And so she did, indeed. And so, in their name, must we all.