Castrillo Matajudios: Name-change helps village to forget its links with Spanish persecution

The phrase ‘kill the Jews’ did not correspond to  the way this village thinks or acts these days

A referendum in the northern Spanish village of Castrillo Matajudios, which translates as “Fort Kill the Jews”, has seen a majority of its inhabitants vote in favour of changing its controversial name.

A 93 per cent turnout saw the village’s 57 inhabitants cast 29 votes in favour of changing the name, which has stood since 1623, and 19 votes against.

Founded in 1035 when Jews fleeing from a nearby pogrom settled there, the village will now revert to its former name, Castrillo Mota de Judios, or “Fort Hill of the Jews”, although the process will take up to a year.

Castrillo Matajudios, in the north-western province of Castile and León, almost certainly lost some, if not all, of its Jewish inhabitants in 1492, when the Jews were expelled en masse from Spain, with many of those remaining forcibly converted to Christianity.

One theory says the change of spelling from “Mota”, or “Hill”, to “Mata” – “Kill” – could well have come about in a bid to disassociate the village’s strong links with a persecuted culture. Half a millennium on, however, the soon-to-be-renamed Castrillo Mota de Judios is returning to its roots.

“We are very happy because a majority were in favour of the change,” said the mayor, Lorenzo Rodriguez, who had warned he would resign if the referendum was lost. “The phrase ‘Matajudios’ did not correspond to the way this village thinks or acts these days, nor with our village flag, which has the Star of David on it.”

Mr Rodriguez also aims to restore the village’s old Jewish quarter,  a project which reflects a growing interest across Spain in its ancient Jewish culture. Early last year, a website was set up by Spain’s Sefarad Centre for Jewish history which offers virtual tours of 523 locations in 24 cities, revealing the lingering Jewish heritage in the country. And early this spring, the government made an offer of Spanish nationality to descendants of those Jews expelled in 1492.

“Is it right to change the [Matajudios] name? Yes. Am I personally insulted [by the name]? Not really,” Dr David Levey, a lecturer in language and linguistics at Cadiz University, and a Jew who has lived most of his life in Spain, told The Independent.

Dr Levey argued that Spanish words such as Matamoros (literally, “kill the Moors”) – the historic word used to describe the Muslims who once ruled a large part of Spain and which, back in 2006, some 3,200 Spaniards were reported to have as a surname – “are so strongly ingrained that most Spanish people aren’t really aware of the connotation”.

“If they say the word Matamoros, they don’t make any association with killing Arab people,” Dr Levey added. “And I’d imagine the same with Matajudios.”

The town of Valle de Matamoros (“the Valley for killing the Moors”) in western Spain announced last month that it had no intention of changing its name. “We have never thought of altering it,” a local official told the ABC newspaper. “It is a historic name here – you are born with it and you live with it.”

Questions are periodically raised, too, about the handful of  Spanish villages still partly bearing the dictator Francisco Franco’s epithet of “Caudillo”  –or “leader” – and whether these references should be wiped. Most villages have opted to stay as they are, sometimes for practical reasons. The village of Bembezar del Caudillo, in the southern province of Cordoba, briefly became plain “Bembezar” a few years ago, but the idea was soon abandoned because, according to a town hall official, “it created a lot of confusion with the post”.

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