Spanish town to vote on changing name from ‘Camp Kill Jews’


A sign with the name of the village of Castrillo Matajudios (Kill Jews Fort) is seen near its entrance in northern Spain May 16, 2014. REUTERS/Ricardo Ordonez

There are a lot of offensive names around the world: This town in Austria, for example, and this island in Canada. But few names are as symbolic of the darker moments in human history than Castrillo Matajudios, a small village located in the province of Burgos, Castile and León, Spain: The town's name translates as "Camp Kill Jews" in English.

Just 56 people live in Castrillo Matajudios, and some of them are obviously concerned about what the town's name says about them. This Sunday, May 25, the village will hold a referendum on changing the name to the less offensive Castrillo Mota Judios ("Camp Jew Hill").

"There are always the stories of people from here traveling to Israel with a passport that says Matajudios and wishing they didn't have to show it," Mayor Lorenzo Rodriguez Perez told the Associated Press last month.

It's a particularly difficult situation given the history of Judaism in Spain: A history that includes a 400-year plus expulsion, forced conversations, massacres and the infamous Spanish Inquisition. And that history still has repercussions in the modern day. One Pew Research poll from 2008 found that 48 percent of Spaniards had a negative view of Jews, and a series of anti-Semitic tweets after a recent basketball match between Spain and Israel are being taken as a distinct reminder that Jews aren't welcome.

Perversely, Castrillo Matajudios' offensive name may in fact be the result of human error, though it's origins are no less macabre. NBC's L. Brinley Buton reports that the town's name may in fact have been Castrillo Mota Judios ("Camp Jew Hill") in reference to a hill in the town that served as a refuge for Jewish families fleeing a nearby massacre in 1035. The town's name somehow turned to Castrillo Matajudios in the early 17th century, perhaps due to a transcription error (note that the two names are just two letters away), or perhaps because villagers wanted to disassociate themselves from the Jewish past.

Offensive place names have been changed throughout history. The United States used to be littered with such names, but there was a concerted effort to change them after the civil rights movement in the 1960s (though not everywhere got the memo, as was highlighted by the 2011 revelations that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s family had leased a hunting camp commonly referred to by a racial epithet). There are other offensive names in Spain too, such as Valle de Matamoros, which translates as The Valley of Moor Killing, a reference to the Muslim Moors who once ruled much of Spain.

The hope for Castrillo Matajudios is that by changing the name, the residents can not only disassociate themselves from Spain's history of anti-Semitism, but also reconnect with the town's Jewish past. "The reality is this is a village descended from a Jewish community," the mayor told Reuters.

Not everyone is convinced, however.  “We have been living just fine with this name for over 400 years," one farmer said to the New York Times earlier in May. "So why is there suddenly a need to change it?”

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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