Jewish Girona

Girona is a town situated 60 miles north of Barcelona in the region of Catalonia, Spain. In the 1970s through the efforts of one man, Jose Tarres, the Jewish quarter of Girona was re-discovered after 500 years. It had lain dormant as a very poor old district of Girona, often under plies of trash, with no one realizing its significance. The Jewish Quarter or Call existed from ca. 900 CE to 1492 when all remaining Jews were expelled from Spain, a period of ca. 600 years. During this time the Jewish presence in Girona, as in many other cities elsewhere in Spain, grew and prospered, then declined and was extinguished. It was not until modern times that the history of the Jewish presence in Girona was researched and documented.

Libi Astaire, a scholar of Jewish Spain, spoke about the history of the Jews in Girona at the Netanya AACI. Luckily the current non-Jewish leadership of Girona has taken an interest in restoring the former Jewish quarter there, unlike many other towns in Spain, and this has enabled much to be learnt. The first documented presence of Jews in Girona was found in a manuscript dated 983 CE, which mentioned a group of Jewish families who had moved to Girona a century earlier. Often evidence of Jewish activity is found in real estate and other recorded transactions. In 988 CE the existence of a synagogue is mentioned that was situated across from the Cathedral. In a manuscript of 1040 CE, which details the sale of vineyard outside the city walls, can be found the earliest known signature in Hebrew. The Jewish presence grew as the town grew and by the 13th century the area of Jewish habitation was distinct enough to call it a separate quarter, with at least another synagogue and perhaps 1,000 inhabitants. It is important to note that even though there were recorded incidents of anti-Semitism, there is no evidence that the Jews were forced to live separately from the Christians and there appears to have been amicable relations for the most part.

In 1263 CE an important event occurred in the history of the Jews of Girona, King James I of Aragon, who ruled Catalonia, ordered the renowned Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, also known by the acronym the Ramban or Nachmanides, to go from Girona to the Royal Palace in Barcelona to participate in a disputation with eminent Churchmen. King James declared the Ramban the “winner.” King James, who ruled for 63 years, was an ally of the Jews, being literally their owner and protector. He realized that the prosperity of Girona and Barcelona depended to a large extent on the mercantile capabilities of his Jewish vassals. However, the Church was very upset by the result of the disputation, and being poor losers within a few years Pope Clement IV managed to have the Ramban expelled from Catalonia, without his family and property.

By the 14th century the Jewish community in Girona was established and prosperous; it had a famous school of Kabbalah and was known as a “mother city of Israel.” But then things changed for the worse: King James died and a period of chaos followed, which was made worse by the arrival of the black plague that wiped out many people. The Jews were often blamed for the plague and many were attacked and killed. In 1391 there were massacres, pogroms, throughout Spain that spread from the south. In Girona the synagogue was destroyed and shops attacked (reminds one of the Nazis 600 years later). Jews were forced to convert to Christianity (Catholicism), becoming conversos, and due to continuous persecution the number of Jews reached a low of ca. 200. In the late 1400s laws were passed prohibiting Jews from owning stores with doors and windows that looked outside of the Jewish quarter, and the Jewish quarter was eventually walled up to make a Ghetto.

In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition started. Although the Inquisition was not as popular in Catalonia as in other parts of Spain, some conversos who had remained faithful Jews (so-called “marranos” or in Hebrew anusim) were found out (often under torture) and burnt at the stake (auto-da-fe). In 1492, the year of the edict of expulsion, there were only 20 Jewish families remaining in Girona. They sold everything (there are contracts describing this) and the Jewish presence in Girona ceased.

The Jewish quarter of Girona is now probably the best preserved medieval Jewish quarter of any city in Spain and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. It has a small Jewish museum and probably the best library of the early Jewish presence in Spain. In her novel “Terra Incognita” Libi Astaire recounts the story of inhabitants of a small village in Catalonia who rediscover their converso, or Bnei Anusim, origins (see By the way, Astaire is a variant spelling of the Sephardic name for “Esther,” but it has nothing to do with Fred Astaire, whose original surname was Austerlitz.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.