David Stoleru: School Built on Cemetery Provides Lesson in History

Michael Kamber for The New York Times David Stoleru, who works to preserve Jewish heritage in Spain, at the construction site of a school atop a medieval Jewish cemetery in a Toledo suburb last month.

Source: NYT, 7-1-09

TOLEDO, Spain — As this medieval hilltop city baked in the afternoon heat, a group of Jewish leaders gathered beside a freshly dug grave and lowered into it small bundles of flaking, ancient bones. With prayers and a plea for forgiveness for disturbing the peace of more than 100 medieval souls, they laid them to rest in the cool, reddish earth.

The New York Times Toledo was once the capital of a thriving Jewish community.

The quiet ceremony in late June concluded months of delicate negotiations between Jewish groups and Spanish authorities over the fate of the remains of 103 Spanish Jews whose graves were excavated last year during the construction of a school building in a suburb of this historic city.

The exhumation drew international condemnation from Jewish representatives and became an important battleground in the quest to preserve Jewish cemeteries all around Spain, remnants of a thriving community that made Toledo its capital before being expelled by Spain’s Roman Catholic monarchs in 1492. The dispute pitted the exigencies of modern society against the rights of a scattered people for whom a permanent tomb is a crucial religious requirement. It stirred friction between Jewish groups eager to protect their heritage but divided over how to deal with a secular government.

“Toledo is central to Jewish history,” said David Stoleru, a co-founder of the Center of Studies Zakhor in Barcelona, a research group dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage. “The state has a duty to protect that legacy.” “This issue has international repercussions,” Mr. Stoleru said. “It’s not just affecting the Jewish community in Spain but the sensibility of an entire people.”

Enlarge This Image Michael Kamber for The New York Times

Tombstones at one of Toledo’s two medieval synagogues are reminders of Spain’s Jewish heritage.

The controversy began in September, when builders digging a new foundation at the Azarquiel High School discovered dozens of graves, believed to be part of a Jewish cemetery dating from around the 13th century. The cemetery may extend well beyond the grounds of the school; Mr. Stoleru said he recently saw bones in the ground at another nearby construction site.

The government of Castilla-La Mancha, the parched region of which Toledo is the tourist-mobbed capital, halted the digging and stored the remains at a museum pending discussions with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which represents Spain’s 40,000 Jews. Jewish representatives suggested building a raised foundation to sit above the graves but were told this would be difficult and expensive, according to rabbis and government officials involved in the talks.

María Soledad Herrero, who runs the regional government’s culture department, said the authorities had to balance the needs of history with those of students. “Nobody knows the importance of Spain’s Jewish heritage better than we in Toledo,” she said by telephone. “But we can’t put 1,000 pupils on the street.”

As talks dragged on, the economic pressure grew, and in February the authorities ordered construction to restart. The facts on the ground built their own momentum: by mid-June, a foundation had been laid and the skeleton of a two-story building stood above the grave site. Meanwhile, international protests spread to New York, Israel and Canada. Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, visited Spain to protest the exhumation, which he said was tantamount to a second expulsion. Thousands of black-clad Orthodox Jews gathered in a Brooklyn hotel in May to mourn the desecration.

Finally, on June 18, the parties agreed to bury the remains close to the original graves but clear of the construction site…..

For Mr. Stoleru, the issue of Jewish graves raises questions about how modern, secular Spain reconciles itself with dark chapters of its history, like the expulsion and forced conversion of thousands of Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition. “We need to reflect much more deeply about the expulsion and use history to inform our daily actions,” he said. “Jewish heritage in Spain should not be a museum piece. It should be a tool for teaching tolerance and diversity.”

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