The Myth of la Llave in Spanish Memory

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By Editorial Intern Rachel Kaufman

In my previous essay, The Myth of la Llave in crypto-Jewish Poetry, I demonstrated New Mexican crypto-Jewish poets’ use of the myth of la llave (key) as a means to identity reclamation. Crypto-Jews Gloria Trujillo, Dr. Isabelle Medina Sandoval, and Andrea K. Nasrallah used the myth to renew their faith in an ancestral Jewish past and to nostalgically revisit their lost homeland.

Los sefarditos de España se escaparon con llave escondida
y sé dentro de mis huesos que ésta misma llave fue perdida
y que ya hemos encontrado la llave en la neshama dormida

The Sephardim of Spain escaped with a hidden Key
and I know deep in my bones that this same key was
and that now we have found the key to the

sleeping Neshama (Sandoval, “Opened Locks”)

In an illuminating counterpart, the Spanish government has also promoted the myth of la llave. Spanish officials and citizens, like New Mexican crypto-Jews, have collapsed historical time through the myth. But Spain’s intentions, both during the Holocaust and in recent decades, are different from those of crypto-Jews; the latter dwells in mythology as a means of identity-creation and preservation of Jewish ancestry, while the former utilizes the myth to absolve themselves of historical blame and promote forgiveness and memory distortion.

In 2015, the Spanish government passed a law proposed by the People’s Party, a right-wing, Christian democratic party, stating that those who can prove Sephardic ancestry can gain Spanish citizenship. The law passed in Parliament without a dissenting vote. A 2012 law proposed a similar opportunity but with more restrictions. Spain’s justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón said about the bill: “it is about addressing a historic aberration….the expulsion was one of Spain’s most important historical errors. Now Jewish people have an open door to become once again what they should have never stopped being — citizens of Spain.” Ruiz-Gallardón does not align himself with the guilty Spain of the past—the Jews “should have never stopped being” citizens. Agency falls grammatically on the Jews rather than the Catholic monarchy. Part of the citizenship application requires a person to show their special connection to Spain. One of the possible “special connections” is “evidence or knowledge of Ladino or ‘Haketia’ languages,” languages almost extinct in the twenty-first century. The mythology of the imagined homeland becomes a key actor in policy-making.

Decades before these laws appeared, and on the quincentennial of 1492 (the year of expulsion), Spanish leaders began to attempt reconciliation and invited Jews to return to Spain. In the spring of 1992, President Chaim Herzog of Israel and King Juan Carlos of Spain symbolically prayed together in a synagogue in Madrid, and Carlos “obliquely” spoke of past persecutions. In a 1992 article published in the Albuquerque Journal, “Sephardic Jews Today: Arriving Against the Odds,” a rabbi quotes a section of a Spanish declaration that emphasizes the house keys taken by fleeing families in 1492. He told his congregation that some were worried Spain was bribing the Jews, encouraging tourism and preventing protests that would disturb the Barcelona Olympics, but according to the article, this rabbi did accept the country’s symbolically outstretched hand.

Street Sign for the Calle de la Juderia Vieja in Segovia, Spain. Photo by the Author.

In her book, Jewish Spain: A Mediterranean Memory, Tabea Linhard argues that “writers and witnesses narrate instances of Jewish life in Spain’s turbulent twentieth century by invoking the remote past.” (Linhard, 4) In the 1940s, Spaniards saved a small number of Jews, the majority of whom were descendants of Sephardim, attempting to flee Hitler’s territories. A 1943 press release about Jews fleeing from France emphasized that certain Jews were accepted into Spain because of their archaic Spanish: “‘[The Spanish people] were amused by the ways in which they spoke that old Castilian….it is possible to have general conversations between the Spaniards who speak the Castilian of the twentieth century and those that return with the speech used in the fifteenth century, when they left Spain.’” (Linhard, 103) The Jews’ preservation of old Castilian allowed for Spanish sympathy, for literal and figurative conversations. These Jews were “returning” to Spain, not just entering, and they had supposedly maintained for centuries their Spanish identity.

Ángel Sanz-Briz, a Spanish diplomat during the Franco regime who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews, repeated this rhetoric of return. Memorialized in countless books as a savior of the Jews, his story is used as a substitute for examining Spanish action more generally. (See Jacobo Israel Garzón’s “El Archivo Judaico del Franquismo” (1997) to read about the Jewish Archive, a list of 6,000 Jews living in Spain created by the Franco regime and handed over to Nazi authorities in 1941.) In 1949, Sanz-Briz reflected on the Jewish refugees he encountered: “[Sephardim] hold on to many keepsakes of Spanish culture. Some even still own the keys to the homes that their great-great-grandfathers had to abandon 450 years ago.” Sanz-Briz projects onto Sephardic Jews a nostalgia for their lost country, even though, as demonstrated in the first section of this essay, crypto-Jews longed for the Judaism which flourished within their families in Sepharad (a nostalgically recalled Jewish community in Medieval Iberia) rather than Spain itself. In his 1973 book, España y los judíos en la segunda guerra mundial (Spain and the Jews in the Second World War), commissioned by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Federico Ysart presented Spain’s humanitarian efforts during World War II. He wrote about the llave: “‘There was not a family that did not know its exact lineage in the kingdom of Sepharad. Many kept in their crammed storage spaces the keys to a distant home that would die with their memories…”’[1] According to Ysart, Sephardic Jews cling to their Spanish heritage and preserve a homeland otherwise lost. In a 1943 press release referring to Jews coming from Greece, the Spaniards’ sentiment that the Jews are returning to a homeland recurs yet again. The release states: “Today ancient horizons return. And as proof that they never stopped being Spanish, and that the eternal Iberia traveled with them to all corners of the world and accompanied them in all their suffering, they bring back to the land they left five centuries ago the keys to the homes they left and to which they have, without a doubt, the right to return.” (Linhard, 103) The romanticization of the Jews’ return is extreme: not only is their bodily return equated to the return of “ancient horizons,” suggesting a naturalness to the cycle of expulsion and return, but it is suggested that their Spanish-ness has remained an integral part of their beings throughout their centuries away. The “eternal Iberia” seems to be some sort of consolatory, comforting essence, traveling with them throughout their centuries of suffering.

Both Ysart and Sanz-Briz crafted a nostalgic vision of the past for the Jews; neither cited the nostalgic voices of any Jewish individuals. Their nostalgia traveled backwards centuries in an attempt to rewrite Spanish history as sympathetic to Jewish suffering. Reimagining the 14th and 15th centuries as a time of nostalgic departure for the Jews translates into reimagining the 1940s as a period filled with Spanish saviors, welcoming Jews back into their longed-for homeland. By evading Spain’s complicity in the Inquisition years (nostalgia usurps recognition of the Spanish government’s violent past), Sanz-Briz and Ysart reframe Spanish-Jewish relations in centuries past through the years of Franco and the Holocaust. In comparison to misinformed or crafty figures like Sanz-Briz and Ysart, respectively, New Mexico crypto-Jews like Trujillo and Sandoval are historical innocents. (Innocence not as in naivete, but harmlessness—they are not distorting history.) Sanz-Briz and Ysart, and the copious press releases and government-issued decrees in Spain over the past seventy years, manipulate nostalgia and memory in order to rewrite history as a means to absolution. For Sandoval, like the Sephardim Haboucha described, the nostalgic symbol of the llave serves as a means of comfort—consolation for time that has been forcibly lost and hope that new generations will regather and revitalize lost traditions. Spanish law provides a physical solution for the expelled Jews (though the bureaucratic difficulties behind the invitation have resulted in very few Jews completing the process), but it perpetuates the same historical memory distortions prevalent in the 1940s and 50s. For New Mexican crypto-Jews, the myth serves as a form of reflective nostalgia (see The Myth of la Llave in crypto-Jewish Poetry), a renewed memory landscape meant to enable Jewish faith in diaspora. The key does not represent a desire for physical return.

To read more of Rachel Kaufman’s work on New Mexico crypto-Judaism, look for the forthcoming publication of her thesis, “New Mexico crypto-Jewish Memory, Origins to 2007” in the Yale Historical Review.

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