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Originally published Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 6:11 AM

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A tough game to change an old name in Spain

The mayor of Spain’s Castrillo Matajudíos — roughly, Little Hill Fort of Jew Killers — is having a tough time persuading the 56 registered citizens of this sleepy village to vote May 25 to adopt a different name and finally eradicate a link to the persecution of Jews in the


The New York Times

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CASTRILLO MATAJUDÍOS, Spain — To outsiders, it might seem obvious that the time has come, or long passed, to change the name of a village that evokes one of the darkest chapters of Spain’s history.

But the mayor of Castrillo Matajudíos — roughly, Little Hill Fort of Jew Killers — is having a tough time persuading the 56 registered inhabitants of this sleepy village to vote May 25 to adopt a different name and finally eradicate a link to the persecution of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition.

“We have been living just fine with this name for over 400 years, so why is there suddenly a need to change it?” asked Anastasio Alonso, a farmer.

Aside from why the issue has come up only now, the question might be how the village, about 160 miles north of Madrid, got its name in the first place. Or even, in a country sprinkled with place names that evoke other ugly parts of the past, where the name changing, once begun, might end.

“Unfortunately, the truth is that people here had no idea about our history and where we come from,” Mayor Lorenzo Rodríguez Pérez said.

Before he proposed last month that residents change the name, the mayor’s first step was to ask some experts to investigate just how the village got it. The answer, according to Angel Palomino, an archaeologist, is that “Jew killers” was added to the name not to commemorate a local pogrom, but because residents were desperate to dissociate themselves from their own Jewish past.

Palomino said his research showed Castrillo had been a prosperous Jewish community, founded in the 11th century after Jews were expelled from a nearby town. The Jewish community here flourished as a trading hub along the pilgrimage route taken by Christians to visit Santiago de Compostela.

By the time the Spanish Inquisition started, Castrillo may have been home to as many as 1,200 people. When the Spanish monarchy expelled the Jews in 1492, residents decided to convert to Catholicism rather than flee, but their worries did not end there.

“What followed was a long period of repression, even after the Jews got expelled, because the repression toward their descendants continued and in some ways even intensified,” Palomino said. To help avoid such repression, he said, the converts decided to rename their village as a place of Jew killers.

“The descendants of the Jews changed the name so as to portray themselves as the most anti-Semitic people possible at a time when Spain was the most Catholic monarchy of Europe,” Palomino said.

The first known document referring to the village as Castrillo Matajudíos is from 1623. Earlier documents, Palomino said, generally referred to it as Castrillo de Judíos, or Castrillo of the Jews.

Of course, there are other theories. The mayor said it was possible that a local clerk in the 17th century had mistakenly changed the name to Matajudíos from Motajudíos, meaning Hill of Jews. That is the name he would like residents to adopt.

Palomino said that would be “an acceptable halfway compromise,” even if historically inaccurate. He firmly rejected, however, other interpretations of the name’s origins.

Since Easter, when Rodríguez Pérez unveiled his plan, the town hall has been flooded with hundreds of emails, the mayor said, sent from all over Spain as well as overseas, arguing strongly in favor of or against changing the name.

Some of those opposed to a change, Rodríguez Pérez said, were concerned about creating a precedent that would encourage name alterations in dozens of other places in Spain, including those called Matamoros, a reference to the killing of the Moors who controlled much of the country during centuries of Muslim occupation.

Spain’s more recent history has also stirred up a renaming debate, as town halls around the country have been faced with whether to erase the legacy of the Franco dictatorship, often by switching back to names that Francisco Franco removed after winning the Spanish Civil War.

Changing the name of Matajudíos has come up at least once before. A proposal to do so was made in the 1960s, under the Franco dictatorship — not to remove an anti-Semitic stain but to rename the village in honor of its most famous son, Antonio de Cabezón, a composer during the Spanish Renaissance.

But even that bid failed in the face of what residents acknowledge is the abiding conservatism of the village and its region, which some cite as the reason the name Matajudíos has endured so long.

“You have to understand that previous mayors here were very conservative and didn’t want to have anything to do with a name change,” said Augustin Alonso Alonso, a local entrepreneur.

Rodríguez Pérez is also conservative, but he argues that the village’s name “gives us a bad image, especially if we travel around the world.”

Some residents have accused him of self-promotion and of calling unnecessary attention to the village. They worry, too, about his plans for possible archaeological digs to unearth Jewish ruins, and the accompanying bureaucracy and expenses at a time of deep cuts in state spending.

Rodríguez Pérez says that if residents vote to change the name, he does hope to start promoting the village’s Jewish roots. He wants to search for the remains of the synagogue and other buried evidence of the original settlement, and to work out which local family names were originally Jewish — including, probably, his own.



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