Castrillo Matajudios, Spain – “It sounds awful, but we’ve never killed anyone,“ says Modesta Reynosa, who has lived all of her 86 years in Castrillo Matajudios, a sleepy town in northern Spain, whose name translates as “Kill Jews”.
Mayor Lorenzo Rodriguez agrees that the name is offensive, and will thus poll the town’s 56 registered voters on May 25 on whether they want to change it to what many historians say was the original name of “Castrillo Motajudios”. The two names differ by just one letter, but the old one has the innocuous meaning, “Jews’ Hill”, and local geography backs that theory: Reynosa was quick to point to a prominent hill right next to the town.
Historians consulted by the Casa Sefarad Jewish cultural centre in Madrid say the name dates back to about 1035 CE, when 60 Jews were massacred in the neighbouring town of Castrojeriz during a revolt against tax collecting.
The survivors were forced to flee to Castrillo, where a Jewish community of some 400-500 people took refuge and lived there peacefully until 1492, when all Jews and Muslims in Spain were forced to either convert to Christianity or be banished from the country.
Outsiders say, 'Damn! You kill Jews here!', but nothing could be further from the truth. We protected the Jewish community here, and are of Jewish descent.
Rodriguez says most of the town’s Jews decided to stay, which is attested to by the fact that to this day, most of the locals’ surnames – including his own – are typical of those adopted by “conversos”, as Jewish converts became known.
“Outsiders say, ‘Damn! You kill Jews here!’, but nothing could be further from the truth. We protected the Jewish community here, and are of Jewish descent,” he tells Al Jazeera in the modest town hall, where a coat-of-arms above the entrance sports a Star of David. “The town has always wanted to discover its roots. We have a rich history, and this used to be an important place, but it has come down in the world. We need to add value, so it doesn‘t die out.”
The council is working with Casa Sefarad to raise the €100,000 ($139,000) needed to fund an archaeological excavation of the hill, which locals have long maintained is linked to the town by tunnels. Reynosa, for instance, tells of how her late husband’s donkey fell into a hole in the middle of an adjacent field, where he found some 12th century pottery.
Recovering the town’s history would allow it to add to the increasingly well-established Jewish heritage trails criss-crossing Spain and Portugal. Rodriguez stresses that Castrillo is also the birthplace of Renaissance organist and composer Antonio Cabezon, who is deemed to have been one of the finest keyboard players of the 16th century, yet his former home now lies in ruins.
Castrillo thrived in the Middle Ages, when it had potteries and a hospice for pilgrims wending their way along the road to Santiago, but it has since declined and now runs the risk of becoming one of many ghost towns dotting the Spanish countryside.
Castrojeriz has not only avoided the stigma of a name linking it to the massacre there, but it has prospered. It now enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status and tourists from around the world stop there as they hike or bike to Santiago.
No one is quite sure when or why Castrillo Motajudios changed its name to “Kill Jews”, although the first recorded use of “Matajudios” was in 1624, when Spain was in the throes of the Counter-Reformation against Protestantism and the Inquisition burned many suspected of heresy at the stake.
“There was a lot of pressure after the expulsion order [in 1492]. Someone wrote ‘Matajudios’, and it stuck,” Lorenzo explains.
Maria Royo, the spokeswoman for the Federation of Spanish Jewish Communities, said it was no surprise that the name had taken so long to change. “Spain has a history of persecuting Jews and Muslims, and that has found expression in place names, folk sayings and even in fairly common surnames like Matamoros,” she says.
Matamoros means “Kill Moors”, referring to Muslims originally from North Africa, who lived in Spain for more than eight centuries and left a major influence on the country’s language and culture. To this day, “Matamoros” is literally enshrined as a nickname at churches devoted to St James across Spain – against which the country’s Muslim community has often protested.
Like the mayor, Reynosa says it is time for the townspeople in Castrillo to agree on a new name.
“I don’t suppose it [the name] mattered that much back when no one knew about us, but it is one world now, and just as well. Let people come here and get to know us.”