Jewish footprints in Basque Country

The Jewish cemetery in Bayonne, France holds 3,000 above-ground tombs. (Ron Csillag photo)

Spaniards are not kidding when they talk about regional distinctiveness. The southern region of Andalusia, for example, is as different from Catalonia in the northeast, with its unique language and independence-minded politics, as Nova Scotia is from Quebec.

But perhaps nowhere are territorial contrasts seen best than in the Basque region, which straddles northern Spain and southern France. With a culture, cuisine and language all their own, the three Basque provinces in Spain are fiercely autonomous – to the point where they are the only ones in the country that collect their own taxes.

Standard attractions here are the cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian. The former is home to Canadian-born Jewish architect Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, a twisty-turny marvel that dominates the landscape, while the latter is a resort town known for its picturesque bayfront promenade and world-renowned restaurants.

As everywhere in Spain, encountering Jewish history in Basque Country is unavoidable. Many Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and pogroms in the 14th century migrated to northern Spain and France. Their footprints remain.

The most evident are in the town of Vitoria-Gasteiz, or just Vitoria, the capital of Spain’s Basque Autonomous Community, about 60 kilometres southeast of Bilbao. The Jewish population here was the largest in the Basque region: 300 in 1290 and 900 on the eve of the expulsion in 1492. They included physicians, tradesmen, farmers and tax collectors.

But well before then, they were ghettoized. Today’s Nueva Dentro Street was once called Jewry Street, and was cut off from the main town by a wall. Only one door allowed access.

The sole remnant of the synagogue in Vitoria, Spain. (Ron Csillag photo)

The major vestige of the Jewish presence in Vitoria is the old cemetery, known as Judizmendi (Jews’ Mountain) Park. A granite monument on the site tells the story: On June 27, 1492, the town council signed an agreement with the Jews to respect and maintain the cemetery following their expulsion. This accord was observed until 1952, when the town was authorized by the Jewish community in Bayonne, France, where many Jews had fled after the expulsion, to transform it into a public park and garden.

A dramatic monument designed by Israeli artist Yael Artsi, dubbed Coexistence, is inscribed in Spanish, Basque and Hebrew with the famous exhortation in the book of Isaiah to beat swords into plowshares. The eight large concrete slabs, arranged like pages in a book, were unveiled in 2004.

The monument explaining the arrangement in 1492 respecting the Jewish cemetery. (Ron Csillag photo)

Another monument, this one resembling a large mound, pays tribute to the 800 or so victims of the Basque separatist group ETA, which sowed deadly terror in the country from 1968 to 2010.


Speaking of terror, the pristine, pretty and serene town of Guernica, halfway between San Sebastian and Bilbao, needs little introduction. It was here that Adolf Hitler obliged his fellow fascist dictator Francisco Franco by deploying Nazi warplanes to bomb the town practically level on April 26, 1937, during Spain’s civil war.

Famously depicted in Pablo Picasso’s eponymous painting, which is housed in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, the bombing left the town understandably scarred but determined to recover. Today, it is dotted with memorials and museums, the best being the Museum of Peace.

Centrally located across from the town hall, it consists of three floors of archival photographs, heart-rending witness testimonies, film strips, documents and memorabilia. On the day we visited, it was packed with schoolchildren.

And as luck would have it, a temporary exhibit, inside a large, tube-like concrete bomb shelter just outside a former gun factory, was on loan from the Auschwitz Museum while we were passing through. Offering a brief yet comprehensive overview of the death camp, it fit well with the town’s backstory of Nazi horror.

Across the border in southern France, Jewish history today is confined mainly to the towns of Bayonne and neighbouring Biarritz. But it began, according to the Association Cultuelle Israëlite de Bayonne-Biarritz, before the destruction of the Second Temple, when members of the tribe of Judah settled in the Iberian Peninsula – hence the term “Nefousoth Yehuda” (the Exiles of Judah), which became the motto of the Bayonne community after 1492.

Their numbers were augmented by Conversos, or secret Jews, from Portugal, and those from the Spanish regions of Navarre, Castile and Galicia. Since the early 1960s, several families from North Africa have settled here, as well. In all, French Basque Country is home to about 200 Jewish families, spread out for about 100 kilometres from the Spanish border.

Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain, we were told, brought two main skills to this region: leatherwork and chocolate making. Prepare yourself for the latter.

In Bayonne, which looks like it popped out of a storybook, it seems every third shop sells chocolate. But this isn’t the stuff you buy at 7-11. A cup of hot chocolat, served in a dainty china cup, is impossibly dense, thick and velvety, and would satisfy the most hardcore chocoholic. You may need the small glass of water served on the side.

Turns out there was a large Jewish role in the chocolate trade here. Leading Bayonne Jews were in the business of importing, exporting and smuggling cacao. By the 17th century, Jews were forbidden from living in the town and prohibited from selling chocolate on Sundays or Christian feast days.

Apart from several buildings named for René Cassin, the Jewish jurist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was born here, the most visible remnant of Bayonne’s Jewish community is the musty, cavernous synagogue on Rue Maubec, which dates to 1837 and has maintained its neo-classical grandness. The community peaked at about 700 in the late 1960s. On the Shabbat we visited, about 50 worshippers were in attendance. The shul generally does not admit travellers, but if you bring your passport, you may get lucky.

Worth a stop is the Jewish cemetery in Bayonne. Founded in the 17th century, it holds 3,000 graves, including those of Jewish pirates and buccaneers, but with a notable difference: all the tombs lie above ground in tightly packed arrangements.

The sole other functioning synagogue in French Basque Country is in Biarritz. It dates back to 1904 and was built thanks to donations from wealthy Russian families who vacationed in the famous seaside resort.

Biarritz holds a special place in Holocaust history. In 1940, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who had been Portugal’s consul in the French city of Bordeaux, was ordered home for signing, against orders, hundreds of life-saving travel documents for Jews trying to get to neutral Spain.

On his journey home, Mendes had a stopover in Biarritz, where he got word that Spanish border guards, acting on information from the Portuguese government, were not allowing Jews to cross the border. Stories vary, but in the end, Mendes convinced the guards to let Jews past the checkpoint. The other story is that Mendes, from his train window, signed many more travel documents that saved so many lives.