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.

SpainTortosa copy.png


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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In My Father's Footsteps

by Connie Hand

The sun was bright under a clear azure sky. The birds were merrily singing on that beautiful Summer morning. As I stood by the country road and stared at the house in front of me, my heart was pounding. I was in Nariz, Portugal standing in front of a house that was typical of the area. But this house was special to me because it was the one in which my father was born. Immediately I thought of the stories he used to tell about his childhood in Portugal and his journey to America.

I always loved to hear about far away places and thought that one day I would travel to Portugal to visit those little towns and big cities that Dad talked about in such a vivid way.

The story of my father, Augusto Silva began on June 8, 1911 in Nariz in the district of Aveiro. He was the second of five children born to Maria and Luis Silva, and it was not an easy life. The family farmed their lands  and tried to make ends meet. In 1927, Dad decided to emigrate to the United States, and it was a life-altering decision. He researched what was necessary for his journey. It must have been very hard on both of them when his widowed mother gave him her approval to leave. He told me he vowed to go back to visit this sweet woman, and he did keep that vow. He described that visit with tears in his eyes.

He traveled to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, and worked there for several months until he discovered that Portugal’s emigration quotas were filled for the next several years. He was advised to travel to France to take up residency in Paris. He told me that he worked in Paris doing odd jobs. I remember Dad telling me that Paris was a huge, beautiful city. He said he saw as many sights as he could, but he really couldn’t wait to get to America.

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Sardinia’s Coastal Towers: The silent watchers

by Silvia Pe

 

We were all children once. Childhood is the time of dreams and fantasies, when our imagination craves great adventures. I wonder if there’s a child who has never dreamt of becoming the king of an enchanted, beautiful castle? It was my dream when I was six.

I grew up in Sardinia, listening to the legends of the proud guardians of the Sardinian coastline. My favourite locations were the coastal towers: They’re scattered along the edges of the whole island, from Cagliari to Alghero, from Oristano to Siniscola, placed to form a big protective circle. My Sardinian history teacher was my grandfather, an old fashioned sailor.

He was a charming middle-aged man. His broad shoulders and rather serious demeanor gave him an authoritarian look, but he had kind eyes. He loved to enchant me by gesturing with his knotty hands, telling me about the Sardinian silent watchers… Built to resist the pirate’s incursions, the towers were managed, equipped and defended by the Royal Tower Administration, a proto-agency based in Cagliari. A stone in Uras dating back to 1546 stands as a witness of one of the incursions by the infamous Red Beard, or Barbarossa as we call him (his real name being Khayr al-Din).

The towers were placed in a way that allowed the watchers to communicate using visuals and sounds, without leaving their stations… a little bit like when I was in front of my grandpa and my thoughts started running as if into a dream world.

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Honoring America's Fallen Soldiers in Normandy

by Roy Stevenson

 

American Military Cemetery, Colleville, Normandy, FranceThe view from the top of the high, soft, sand dunes next to the American Military Cemetery at Colleville, Normandy, is great today. It’s a bright clear blue sky and I can see for miles. French fishing trawlers churn through the choppy, deep blue water, miles out to sea, leaving wide foaming wakes behind them. Gazing down across the long, deserted flat white expanse of Omaha Beach, I can see where the olive uniformed American soldiers debarked their landing craft, to shelter behind steel tetrahedrons, or sprint up the beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Descending the sand dunes, I walk the long 500 meters down the gently sloping beach to the water’s edge. It’s dead low tide. I turn around, looking back up towards the dunes. I’m amazed at how far away they are. They would seem like they were miles away, especially to a young soldier armed to the teeth and heavily weighed down with equipment.

It must have been terrifying trying to sprint up the beach into the teeth of a hailstorm of machine gun, rifle, and mortar fire. Of the soldiers in the first few D-Day landing craft, 90% didn’t even make it up the beach. In my mind’s eye I fleetingly see chaos, patches of red blood-drenched sand, and a flickering image of a young soldier in a soaked green uniform. “I must have seen “Saving Private Ryan” once too many times”, I think self-consciously.

Deep in thought, I trudge back up the steep, uneven sand dunes to the American Military Cemetery and walk along row upon row of perfectly aligned white crosses, on the vast 172-acre, smooth, emerald green-grassed plateau. The 9,387 crosses are a stupefying sight. They radiate outwards in perfectly straight lines no matter what angle they are viewed from.

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Searching for Sunrise in a Megalithic Cemetery, Ireland

by Elyn Aviva

Cautiously, my husband Gary, our friend Michael, and I followed a nearly invisible path through the fog and up the side of Loughcrew hill, just before sunrise. A huge crow—perhaps a raven—flew by, its wings flapping loudly in semi-darkness. We were heading to the ridge top to see a twice-a-year spectacle: the rays of the equinox sunrise penetrating the passageway of Cairn T, a 5,500-year-old megalithic tomb situated 52 miles northwest of Dublin. The equinoxes, which occur around March 21 and September 21, are the two times of year when the days and nights are of equal length.

Distant drumming drifted through the swirling mist, along with the faint sound of voices. Others had reached the site before us. Soon we arrived at the top. A large mound of mist-sparkled green grass and rocks, Cairn T looked like an immense, squat mushroom, partly encircled with huge kerbstones. A number of ruined, exposed stone chambers and tumbled stones were scattered over the hillside. Clumps of people milled around, seeking shelter, chanting, or sharing mugs of steaming coffee and pieces of cake. The event had the mixed flavor of a class reunion and a revival meeting.

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Family Lost, Family Found

by Andrea Campbell

By traveling to find my father's family, I became a bridge between the Soviet Union and the United States. But first, allow me to back up and tell you my story. 

I had been an orphan and spent seven abysmal years in foster homes. When my mother died of cancer, I was only ten. She was 45. It was the worst thing that ever could happen to me, I thought. Unresolved grief walled my heart.  For comfort, I turned to my big sister who was as devastated as I.  And I looked to my distant, hard working, passionate Ukranian immigrant father for a sense of security. Though he tried to fill my loneliness, he suffered from depression.

Two years after my mother died, my father died. I was twelve and alone. Because my sister was separated and planning to divorce, the courts decreed that her’s was a broken home and not a good environment for me.   Thus, I was sent to the first foster home. I lost my mother, my father, my home, most of my belongings and close contact with my sister.  I was isolated and abandoned.  

Somehow, I gathered family photos. As I matured, through hard work (dealing with my own suffering), years of schooling and post-school training, I chose a career in mental health. I found happiness and deep satisfaction as a mother to my daughter.

When my father left Russia in 1915, he was 15 years old.  He never saw his family again.  I was told he kept a goat in a lot on Prince St., Newark, New Jersey.  A noted School of Medicine and Dentistry now stands on that spot.  A letter from his mother in 1939 contained a photo of his nephew, and a request to cease communication.  At that time, having American family was potentially politically dangerous.  The last he heard about them was that they were starving during WWII.  When my father died in 1956, he thought they had starved to death or were killed by Nazis.

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Whispers From The Past

words + photos by Jolandi Steven

 

In the pursuit of progress, the past is often overlooked, neglected, discarded or forgotten. 

But to me, it holds an allure that is enticing, charming, mesmerizing and utterly seductive. Not so for everyone: When I first mentioned the abandoned village of Al Jazirah Al Hamra on the outskirts of Ras-al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates to my husband, he evinced his non-committal with a shrug of his shoulders.

Thanks to Google, I learned that Al Jazirah Al Hamra means “Red Island,” and before the discovery of oil and subsequent land reclamation that linked the old town permanently to the mainland, it was on a peninsula that, with high tide, became an island. The questions puzzling me were: “Why did the people abandon their homes?” “Where did they go?” 

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CHIAPAS, MEXICO: Maya, Mother Nature, and More.

3 Ways to Discover Chiapas, Mexico

From a Maya immersion tour deep in the Lacondon jungle to a hacienda-hopping equestrian adventure in the Cintalapa ranchland, discover one of Mexico's most magical and least-known regions with three YourLifeIsATrip.com insiders: editorJudith Fein, photographer Paul Ross, and publisher Ellen Barone.

1. MAYA PAST & PRESENT

by Judith Fein

Searching for Maya history, archeology, cosmology and contemporary life, travel journalist Judith Fein explores Chiapas with archeologist and tour guide Yolanda Ruanova.

© Paul Ross.What lured me to Chiapas? Maya ruins, living Maya and San Cristobal de las Casas. I wanted to be transported back to the Classic Maya period, which began in 200 C.E. and lasted until the empire collapsed six to seven hundred years later. I longed to walk through vast, abandoned cities that were hacked out of the jungle, and gaze up at monumental pyramids, stone palaces, temples, tombs and brilliantly-carved stone stelae.  I wanted to walk along paths once reserved for royalty, and contemplate the cosmology and science of a highly sophisticated, pre-Colombian society. 

Palenque was as huge, impressive and complex as I had imagined.  The murals at Bonampak looked as though they had recently been painted, and the nobility, slaves and priests depicted were still alive. The approach to Yaxchilan was by boat, and, in the high-altitude palaces, I could almost hear the squealing of kids playing and smell the flowers in the gardens. 

I longed to know more about the ancient Maya: what did they eat, how did they dress when they were not attending or performing rituals, what was their magic, what did it feel like to go to a ball game, and did they accept or bristle when they were subjected to their leaders’ rigid hierarchical rule? 

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Discover the Exotic on a Road Trip

by Vera Marie Badertscher

 

“None of your business,” she said.  The short, curly, white hair bounced as she shook her head, but the brown eyes smiled in her beautiful, tanned and weathered face.  Half Navajo, Suzie (not her real name) has lived in Rio Grand pueblos in New Mexico all her life.  We were sitting in a rambling adobe house near the village where she lives with her husband. Grandchildren and daughters droppied in from time to time as we talked. The smell of cedar wood smoke curled around us, and tin-framed pictures of saints glinted on the walls.

Dancers at San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1942. Ansel Adams via Wikipedia CommonsI travel to find new ways of seeing the world.  Although all humans deal with some basic questions,  various cultures find different answers.  How do we show respect to others? Where did we come from? Who created us? How do we ensure good fortune, food, and shelter? What do we need to know?  The more the answers differ from our own, the more exotic the culture seems.

The curt reply, “None of your business,” came from Suzie, a lively Pueblo elder who fervently believes in the Catholic religion, but just as devotedly follows ancient ways.  People come to her for counsel and healing.  Although Suzie inherited an outgoing personality and sense of humor from her Navajo mother, she got her sense of propriety from living in her father's Pueblo culture  for all of her 80 years.

I visited Suzie's husband Joe (not his real name) while writing a book about Navajo artist, Quincy Tahoma.  Finding this couple turned out to be a grand slam for a biographer. Tahoma, a little older than Joe, had been a mentor to Joe when they both attended Santa Fe Indian School. Joe's father gained fame as one of the first Pueblo painters to sell his work, and, now in his eighties, Joe has returned to painting that he had abandoned after his school days. 

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Gypsy Memories

 

The ginger-haired boy positioned his freckled face above the school gate, “Hey you, white nigger.”

I gulped a lungful of air and screamed back defiantly, “Go roll with your pigs, farm yard scum.”

He slammed the gate shut, and screeched back, “Rather live in a dung heap than a filthy tent! Tinky vermin, your mother can’t knit, your father kicked a policeman and is lying in the nick (jail).”

I flew at him with fanned fingers and grabbed bunches of red hair. Like tail tied wildcats we scratched, punched and rolled in the dirt and chuck gravel. I knitted my legs around his heaving chest and hissed, “My daddy says your father spends more time on the hillside with the sheep than he does with your ugly mother!”

Teeth clenched, he retorted, “Your mother’s a witch; you’re a goblin, so there!’

Fueled temper blotted all memory of the battle, except for the teacher shouting as he cast me aside like a rag doll, “Bloody uncivilised tinker, go home. You too, boy.”

I limped home from school that day sporting two bruised shins; he was such a big boy with hard capped boots. Layers of pink flesh under my nails and red hair between my swollen fingers proved I managed to hold my own.  

“Mammy,” I cried, “why does every school have a nasty boy who hates us and what’s a nigger and when did we live in tents?”

The previous month, my beautiful raven-haired mother had given birth to her eighth daughter. Her back was still weak and painfully sore as she bent over a metal bath scrubbing nappies (diapers). Rising slowly, she straitened her spine, inhaled and rested two soapy fists on slender hips. I rushed over and circled her thighs. “Oh mammy. Why is life so awful?”

“Oh dear, not another fight.” She blew onto my tear-sodden eyes and kissed my knuckles.   

“Empty headed boy, he’ll never live as rich a life as you.  All that waits for him is moaning about the price of cattle food.”

She lifted my chin and smiled. “You share the world with all God’s creatures and strong, powerful warriors from Africa are called niggers but only by ignorant people who don’t know better. Now remember I told you about grandma and grandpa living in tents most of their lives. Tree bark peeling, hazelnut gathering, snaring rabbits and selling the skins put food in our bellies just like you going berry picking in summer and potato lifting in the autumn. I was raised walking behind the horses’ hooves, as was your father. If the tent was erected properly, it was cozy and kept out the worst snow and gales.”

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H i s t o r e c t o m y

by Paul Ross

Remember when you were a kid and some relative dragged you, with the best of intentions, to an historical “re-creation” because it was fun AND educational!? You don’t remember what you learned -- so much for education. And it was only slightly more fun for you than for the poor souls who suffered through the real thing ... because they were so miserable, they didn’t mind dying at age 19 from enlarged pores while semi-skilled barbers attached leeches to their appendages.

Photo Slide Show by Paul Ross

These glossed-over, sanitized, falsely nostalgic, contemporarily cosmetic pseudo-experiences invariably celebrate a time of exploitation. And the POV romantically, religiously and ideologically chosen is from the lowest rung of the social ladder. The idea may be noble, but you are not.

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