Chronological / Destinations / Europe

The Spanish-Jewish Connection: The Jews of the Basque

Since it opened in the fall of 1997, the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, a gleaming curvilinear ship of titanium, limestone and glass, has drawn a steady flow of tourists to this Basque seaport on the northern coast of Spain. But among the throngs of visitors we encountered was an American whose journey had nothing to do with Frank Gehry’s futuristic design that thrusts into the Nervion River. Joaquin Carlos Caraguegguie had simply returned to his boyhood home to arrange the details of his late father’s estate.

We met Caraguegguie by chance in a hotel coffee shop. A portly securities attorney in his mid-fifties, he was the last of his family to be born in the Basque. Official records stored in the archives of Madrid document their presence in that region of Spain as far back as 1564, he told us. Unofficial records stored in the oral traditions of his family transmit something else: they are Jews. “Through the centuries, we’ve worked as sheep herders, steel workers, and pawn brokers,” Caraguegguie says. “Officially, there are no pawn shops in Spain. But there are, if you know where to go.”

This comes as a surprise. Earlier that day, we had met with the public relations director of the Guggenheim, a fierce Basque patriot who lost no time telling us the Basque is the cultural capital of Spain; the Basque people are more educated than the rest of the population; and the Basque has the biggest concentration of universities in all of Europe. She was equally as certain the Basque has no Jewish history or contemporary presence. Her statement was confirmed by the owner of a dress shop in the Casco Viejo (old town) whom we met later in the day. His grandmother had opened the shop at the beginning of the century, he said, and as far as he ever knew or heard, there were never any Jews in Bilbao or the rest of the Basque. “He was lying,” Caraguegguie said bluntly. “That man is Old Spain.”

According to Caraguegguie, there have been Jews in the Basque all along. They never achieved the prominence Jews enjoyed in other parts of medieval Spain, he contends, but they also suffered little direct anti-Semitism. The region was more of a refuge, a place the Inquisition never reached. “At one time, I would say there were 60,000 Jews in the Basque,” he says. “Right now, there are about 10,000. They might not publicize the fact, but they know who they are. Plain door synagogues have always been around, but you have to know where they are. No one is going to tell you.

“The Basque people are immensely Catholic,” Caraguegguie adds, “but they didn’t agree with the Inquisition. There is a Basque saying: ‘We know who the Jews are because we used to be Jews.’ They know Christianity comes from Judaism. There is another Basque saying: ‘The Jews will get us the money and put us to work.’ They believed the shipping and ship-building industries and the fishing trades were controlled by Jews, that the Jews wrapped up the sardines.”

The story of the Jews of the Basque adds yet another layer of mystery to this starkly beautiful and also prosperous mountainous region where high-tech and automotive industries, agriculture and scenic splendors amicably co-exist. “Everything about the Basque is different,” Caraguegguie maintains. “We don’t know where we came from. Our language, which is one of the oldest in the world, is different from any other language. We don’t look like other Spaniards. Did you notice how big and heavy the Basque people are? Bigger noses, wider faces. I can be in any part of Spain, people will see me, they’ll say, ‘That guy’s a Basque.’

“Another thing — you notice how noisy it is in the rest of Spain? Not here. You walk into a Basque bar, it’s ‘May I help you?’ People say if they raise their voices, someone will die. They are quiet and polite. That was how my family maintained their Jewishness — they kept quiet about it. We were always told ‘Don’t push it.’”

Caraguegguie recalls a post-war childhood where his main memory of being Jewish was that it was something to be hidden. Still, he says, everyone knew. “We went to the public schools which were taught by the Jesuits. In order to register, you needed a certificate of baptism, and of course we didn’t have one. That was the tip-off that we were Jewish. But here in the Basque, they did nothing about it. The attitude was ‘OK, move on.’ There were some innuendos, but we never suffered any indignities, except for being put in the last line together with the slower kids. And my brother, who was five years older than me, had some bad memories of the girls. They wouldn’t come near him. By the time I was old enough to care about such things, we were already living in America.

“It was my grandfather who kept it going,” Caraguegguie adds. “We had no pictures of Jesus in the house, and we never wore a crucifix. My grandfather was very strict about that: no Christian symbols around. To this day, I will not enter a cathedral. That was also from my grandfather. He would say, ‘Leave it alone.’ He saw to it that my brother and I were circumcised, even though he and my father had to take us to Endorra to find a doctor to do it. He raised us to know the Old Testament was our bible, and every so often had a traveling rabbi come around to instruct us in Jewish laws and get a free meal.”

Still their connection to a Jewish life was limited. “We’d do the seders. If someone died, burial was immediate and we covered the mirrors. I remember my grandfather was buried in his tallit, an object we knew was sacred. But that was it. I didn’t know kosher food existed until I hit New York.”

From downtown Bilbao, one can see sheep grazing on the hills beyond the city.

Caraguegguie’s family took their sheep-herding skills with them when they emigrated to the United States in the 1950’s. They settled in Nevada and brought fellow countrymen over to run with the herds they acquired across the great distances of the far west. Today Caraguegguie lives in Reno with his American-born wife who is of Spanish ancestry. “She is Catholic, but we married in a civil ceremony,” he told us. “My two boys are Jewish. We had an arrangement: ‘The boys will be Jewish,’ I said to her, ‘the girls you can do what you want with.’”

When Caraguegguie’s aunt who remained in Bilbao after the family emigrated died several years ago, a Basque lineage that lasted nearly 500 years came to an end. There is no Jewish cemetery in Bilbao, but Caraguegguie attests to Jewish tombstones in the Catholic cemetery near the airport. “I saw them when I was a kid,” he says, “and to the best of my knowledge, they have never been defiled.”

Nor was the Jewish burial ground in Vitoria-Gasteiz, an hour’s drive south of Bilbao. This gleaming city is the capital and crown jewel of the Basque, an orderly metropolis with more parks and gardens than any other city in Spain, broad promenades that are lined with handsome Gothic and neo-Classical buildings and plazas adorned with fountains and statues. Strategically located along the routes to France, Castille, and Navarre, Vitoria-Gasteiz has been a major commercial center since the Middle Ages, which perhaps explains why this city, unlike the rest of the Basque, had a thriving Jewish community of merchants, traders, craftsmen, and doctors up to the expulsion of 1492. Their well-preserved homes still stand along the Calle Nueva, formerly the Calle Juderia, in the Old Quarter, a dark and narrow street where Gothic structures from the simple tradesman’s house to the merchant’s palace huddle one against the other.

Half a mile away, the eastern edge of the city center is marked by a long, narrow stretch of parkland. This is the Parque de Judimendi — the center for the neighborhood’s social life. On a typical day, it is filled with old people sitting on benches in the sun, children romping in the playground, mothers pushing babies in their prams. Every June, it is the site of the city’s Summer Solstice Festival. Prior to the expulsion, it was Vitoria-Gasteiz’s Jewish cemetery.

When they left in 1492, the Jews extracted a promise from city leaders that their sacred burial ground would not be violated. This was a promise that was kept. Although tombstones deteriorated and disappeared over the years, the land was kept intact. All proposals for construction on the site — from houses to markets to stables to parking lots — were met with the same response: it is forbidden. Four hundred and fifty years later, a delegation of descendants of the Vitoria-Gasteiz exiles came to the city from Bayonne, France and presented officials with a formal release from the centuries-old vow. But their offer was declined. Instead city officials elected to commemorate the place in perpetuity by erecting the tall, narrow monument inscribed with a Star of David that stands in the park’s center and informs passersby of the special nature of the place. This was 1952, sixteen years before the Edict of Expulsion was finally revoked, twenty six years before freedom of religion was finally guaranteed to all Spaniards, forty years before the 500th anniversary of the Expulsion was remembered with attendant publicity showered on Jewish landmarks throughout Spain.

The story of the burial ground in Vitoria-Gasteiz is little known outside of the city. The story of a post-exile Jewish population in the Basque is nearly a secret. Perhaps now that the new Guggenheim has made not only Bilbao, but all the Basque an international “hot spot,” this modest but more humane chapter of the Spanish-Jewish connection will at last emerge for all the world to see.

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