Erasing History in Tortosa

by Elyn Aviva


My husband, Gary, and I decided to visit some friends in Tortosa, a small Spanish city in southern Catalonia at the mouth of the Ebro River. I knew nothing about Tortosa, but when I searched for accommodations, I discovered there was a government-run hotel, a parador, perched on top of a promontory overlooking the river at the edge of town. The “Zuda Castle” parador began as a tenth-century Moorish citadel, was conquered by Christian soldiers, given to the Templar Knights in 1182, later became a palace, a prison, an abandoned fortress—and finally, in 1976, was converted into a luxury hotel. I pulled out my “Amigos de Paradores” membership card to make sure I got the best deal and booked us a room for two nights.

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Tortosa was only a few hours by train from our Girona home. The taxi ride from the train station to the parador included a drive along the Ebro River, during which we drove past an immense metal sculpture rising out of the waters. It included an eagle with wings spread, a cross, and a man with one arm raised, reaching up to a star-shaped object above his head.


“What’s that?” I asked Jorge, the taxi driver.


“A vergüenza.” (A disgrace.)


“Why is that?”


Jorge told us that the dictator Generalissimo Franco erected the statue in 1966. “It commemorates ‘those who found glory in the war.’ That means the Nationalist soldiers, not the Republicans. The Battle of the Ebro was the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. 30,000 people died. And it was fought here, along the river.”


I was shocked. “And they still have a monument commemorating only one side—Franco’s side—the winners?”


Jorge nodded. “Well, some say that now it stands for everybody who died in the battle. Or that it’s a symbol of the city and nothing more. There was an attempt to get it removed a few years ago without success. There’ll be another referendum next year.”


“How will you vote?” I asked.


He paused. “It depends on the choices.”


My knowledge of the Spanish Civil War is sketchy, but I know there were basically two sides: the Republicans, who won the elections in 1931, and the (fascist) Nationalists under Franco, who started a terribly bloody civil war that lasted from 1936-1939. Franco won and was dictator of Spain until he died in 1975. Judging by the monument in the river, memories in Tortosa run deep and long, and the horrors of that time have not been healed—or forgotten.


We drove up a steep, winding road at the edge of town, and our driver pulled up in front of the parador. It was impressive: a huge, golden stone edifice, a stunning medieval fortification, even though most of it is in fact a modern construction. 


We checked in, and while Gary relaxed on the faux-antique four-poster bed, I checked online to learn more about Tortosa. According to the Caminos de Sefarad [Sefarad is the name for Spanish Jews] website, there had been a large and important Jewish community in Tortosa since Roman times. Jews, Moors, and Christians had lived in harmony in the city in the Middle Ages. Over the centuries, Jews had been in charge of international trading negotiations and had been appointed bailiffs of the city. However, this convivial situation didn’t last; all Jews (and Moors) were expelled from Spain in 1492. 


I woke up early, eager to explore Tortosa and learn more about its multi-cultural history. The sunrise over the hills was beautiful, casting a gentle pastel glow over the tile rooftops and stone houses that spread out below the castle like a view on Google Earth. 


We started our explorations at the Tourist Office. Expansive pavilions, blue and white tiles, glazed ceramic roofs, blue stucco walls, and shade trees make a delightful setting for the Tourist Office and Museum of Tortosa, opened in 2012. It was hard to imagine that these stunning buildings, inspired by Moorish architecture, had originally been built 100 years ago as the city slaughterhouse. It was located next to the river so the offal and blood could be more easily disposed of.


I asked the clerk, “Do you have any information about the Jews in Tortosa?” She handed me a brochure that included a map of a walking route through the medieval judería (Jewish neighborhood) and mentioned several important medieval Tortosan Jews. I noticed a flyer describing “La Jueva de Tortosa,” a woman who sings Sephardic songs and re-enacts Jewish life in the judería. 


Pointing to the flyer, I asked, “So, there must be Jews in Tortosa?”


The clerk looked surprised. “No, there aren’t any Jews here. They were all expelled.”


“What about this woman?”


She shrugged. “I don’t know anything about her. She’s a performer of some kind, I think.”


Puzzling over the clerk’s ignorance (or denial), we walked across the garden to the museum.


Carlos, the museum clerk, offered to show us around. He pointed to a large graphic chart on one wall, showing the inhabitants of Tortosa: First, the Iberians, then the Romans, then the Visigoths, then the Moors, then the Christians….


“Uh—what about the Jewish population?” I asked.


He shrugged. “Well, they were expelled, you know.” 


“So were the Moors, and they’re mentioned. And the museum has displays of Moorish pots and ceramics….”


“I guess it must have been an oversight.”


“An oversight? No mention of a community that lived here for more than 1000 years and was important in the city’s trade and government?”


He looked uncomfortable. “Now that you mention it, there are a few things upstairs….”


Upstairs there were, indeed, “a few things.” A piece of a broken pottery candlestick in a case beneath a plaque describing the two “small” minority groups (Muslim and Jew) that made up 20% of the population in the 13th and 14th centuries; a parchment copy of the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Jews; and a plaque describing the 1413-1414 Tortosa Dispute, in which rabbis were forced to argue with Christian missionary zealots in order to prove that Jews were wrong to deny that Christ was the Messiah. By the end of the grueling and unfair “debate,” many Jews and rabbis had converted. They could see the handwriting on the wall. The recorded disputation was used to legitimize forced conversions and persecution of Jews throughout Spain. 


I stormed back downstairs. “I can’t believe that’s all there is about the Jews!”


Carlos had clearly been thinking about our conversation. “There was a conference at the museum a few years ago about Jews in Tortosa.”


“A conference? That’s nice, but there is almost nothing in the museum. It’s as if you want to wipe out their memory, pretend they were never here—just like people want to pretend the monument in the river stands for all those who died in the war!”


“The monument?” Carlos said in disgust. “That’s such a disgrace. On the side it says, ‘Dedicated to those who found glory in the war.’ Obviously, that only refers to the winners. It is very offensive. They’ve removed most of the fascist symbols, but they need to get rid of it.”


Suddenly I wondered whether somehow the erasure of the history of the Jews in Tortosa was similar to this monument of Franco’s. We often say history is written by the victors, and that’s certainly the case in Tortosa—both by the Christians, who pretend that Jews were a trivial, incidental part of Tortosa’s history, and by the followers of Franco, who pretend the monument represents all who died. 


Victors not only write history, they also re-write it—and they don’t write about certain things. This silence erases events and people from memory, as if they never happened or never lived. I began to wonder: maybe it would be a mistake to remove the monument in the river. While it exists, people can’t pretend there wasn’t a civil war.


IF YOU GO:
http://www.redjuderias.org
www.tortosaturisme.cat

 

Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com. Gary’s blog about their expat life is www.fandangolife.com.

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