This year the, 2018 “Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona(CIB)” celebrates its Centenary. This anniversary refers to the creation, in 1918, of a specific organisational structure that served as a social, educational, cultural and religious meeting point of the Catalan Jewish population. Numerically, it represents a very small percentage of the Catalonian population, trajectory and history deserve special consideration.
We must cross many centuries, to ancient times.
When the great Diaspora of the Roman times found Jewish populations settling across Mediterranean lands… Medieval Catalan Jews and Christians not only shared a space but also a language, a taste for business affairs, a characteristic form of government. Affinities that were not strong enough to prevent the tragedy suffered by the Jews and their expulsion in 1492.
In exile, the emigration of the Jewish people from the peninsula varied in destination and timing, but the trend was to flee across the Mediterranean to places where the legislation was favorable for them.
The parentheses of Jewish presence in Catalonia would run for four centuries.
While we might think that during the nineteenth century, the century of political freedom and religious tolerance, the Jews would have seen the chance to return to the mainland. However, the weakness of the Spanish liberal system and the persistence of nostalgic reactionary forces of the old regime, dissuaded them. It is estimated that in 1887, roughly twenty Jewish families lived in Barcelona, mainly businessmen, originating from France and Central Europe.
World War I brought change to this situation, drawing families from over Europe to Catalonia. The industrial and commercial weight of the Catalan capital attracted Jews from Thessaloniki, interested to make connections with Greece to supply the Franco-British expeditionary force in the Balkans. Ottoman Jews saw Barcelona as a manufacturing and port city, giving refuge from the war, even dynamism and prosperity. Influx of other arrivals fleeing military service, Central European dynasties and persecution, around one thousand people, added to the collective.
This growing population provided the seed for the creation of an organization capable to serve Jewish needs for worship, education and charity. Thus, in 1917, the Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona was born. While they were mostly Turks among the signatories statutes, the first president was a German Ashkenazi, Edmundo Metzger. The choice of “Israelita” name, and not the traditional “Judía”, reflects the prevention of using a word with a negative weight that prevailed in the collective imagination as a deicide community.
The arrival of the Second Republic, the new scenario of freedom, and the secular state undoubtedly improved the social conditions of the life of the Catalan Jews. This fact must be added alongside of Hitler’s arrival to power, triggering forced migration of hundreds of endangered Jews. In 1936 it is estimated that in Barcelona resided over five thousand Jews, more than half of them Poles and Germans. The high degree of politicization of the new immigrants caused a deep enrichment of Jewish life. A notable example is the creation of the “Judischer Kulturbund”, which had a leading role in the preparation of the Popular Olympiad in 1936. The military uprising provoked many Jews to return to their home countries, although some members of the Judischer Kulturbund remained, adding to volunteers from around the world, embraced the republican cause by joining the anti-fascist militias. They even formed a Jewish company- the Naftali Botwin Company.
The victory of the Franco army and the outbreak of World War II turned Catalonia in a precarious shelter from Nazi barbarism. The cult was banned and the President of the Community, Edmundo Grunebaum, was imprisoned. The rest of the organisation went underground and their tasks were limited to help the exiled compatriots. The Franco regime’s policy on foreigners entering Spanish territory was mostly improvised, as far as Jews were concerned.
It changed over the years, as a result of shifts in the course of the war and the origins of those fleeing.
In the context of the Franco’s cosmetic changes in the fifties, there was a construction of a Philo-Sephardic myth that consisted of timid measures for the return of Sephardic Jews to Spanish territory. These policies were only applied towards Western powers when the regime was suffering intense international isolation. This situation was used by the Jewish community to found, in 1954, the first synagogue, the Great Maimonides Synagogue, on the peninsula after the expulsion of 1492
Relying on the new “Fuero de los Españoles”, that allows non-Catholic worship, although privately. In this new political context, the members of the incipient Jewish community see an opportunity, so the negotiations intensify until they are allowed to open a small office in Muntaner Street. In 1948, the first elections were held and a steering committee was organized, but it was not until 1949 and under strong international pressure that the Franco government officially recognized the Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona, this committee will be also in charge of gathering the necessary funds to build the current Maimonides Synagogue and the community center of Avenir Street that opens on September 27, 1954.
There have been several migrations that have nourished the Jewish community since that time, such as, the Jews of North Africa in the sixties, or Jewish exiles from Latin American military regimes in the seventies. Since 1977 the Jewish collective is located in a fully democratic framework with a broad religious freedom. and the Community is consolidated as the community of reference with the largest Synagogue. The first school of the Community, the Sephardic School of Barcelona, is also inaugurated. In 1979, it opens with a kindergarten in the same building on Avenir Street, later on and thanks to donations and support from families, the school is installed in a house on Raset Street. The growth and development of the school is parallel to the growth of the community life of the CIB and the Jewish community of Barcelona and Catalonia. Moving from a small house on Raset Street to a larger one on Margenat Street and from there to its current location in Valldoreix, that counts between students and staff with more than 300 people.
Also during the decade of the 70s, Luis Stern a German Jew who belonged to EZRA and very committed to helping the Jewish refugees during the war, donated his country house in the town of Valldoreix, a house where different activities were carried out, such as camps for children and young people. This allowed the creation of associative channels for exchange and mutual recognition between the Jewish community and the rest of Barcelona society.
Since 1977, the Jewish community has been settled in a framework of democratic and religisous freedom, consolidating the COMUNIDAD ISRAELITA DE as the community of reference, with the largest synagogue, Maimónides. The first school of the Community, the Sephardic School of Barcelona, was also inaugurated, in order to to integrate the children. In 1970, it started with a day care center in the same community building on Avenir Street and later, thanks to the support and donations from the families, it was installed in a single-family tower on Raset Street in Barcelona. The growth of the school goes hand in hand with the growth of the community life of the CIB and the Jewish community in Barcelona and Catalonia, going from a small installation on Raset Street to a tower on Margenat Street and from there its current location in Valldoreix, counting between students and staff with more than 300 people. This allowed the creation of associative channels for exchange and mutual recognition between the Jewish community and the Barcelona society.