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  • Roots and Branches: Ancestor Hunting in Spain

    Miriam Weiner

    Family stories have always intrigued me, with the idea that one day further research would lead to the “truth.”  Although my known roots are in the Ukraine, one persistent family story describes a Spanish Catholic named Del Pozo, from a wealthy financial family, who joined Napoleon’s army. Amidst battles in the Ukraine around 1812, he fell in love with a Jewish girl whom he later married.  The family name then became “Undelpozo.”  Thereafter, a Russianized version of the name emerged as “Undelpozov,” finally evolving through the years to “Odnopozov” — the maiden name of my maternal grandmother, Miriam Odnopozov Rabkin.

    When the Spanish National Tourist Office and Iberia Airlines offered to coordinate a research trip for me to various cities where Jews once lived and (in some cases) still do, the “Del Pozo” story immediately came to mind and I renewed my determination to discover my Spanish ancestry.

    Although Senor del Pozo was described as a Spanish Catholic, it was difficult to know what his ancestry really might have been.  According to Samuel Toledano, president of the Jewish communities of Spain, “practically all Spaniards have at least one Jewish ancestor.  More Jews converted than were massacred or who fled the Inquisition.”

    In Madrid, I received an extensive indoctrination on Jewish roots in Spain from Toledano, whose own ancestry dates back to Yusef Toledano, father of Rabbi Daniel Toledano who left Toledo with six grown children at the time of the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain in 1492, as recorded in the family chronicles and his ketubab.  “In the Sephardic tradition, the family tree is very important and is a source of pride and inspiration,” explained Toledano.

    A few days later, while in Granada, I spotted a sign on a jewelry store: “Lopez del Pozo.”  I entered the shop and to the great amusement of other English speaking customers, tried to explain in my rusty college Spanish that I was studying the history of my family in Spain; the name was del Pozo, and could I please see “Señor Lopez del Pozo?”  My “cousin-to-be” was not in and the fractured conversation was proceeding fairly well until I said “mi familia es Judio” (my family is Jewish).  Amidst great animation and headshaking, the employee emphatically declared “Señor [160] del Pozo NO JUDIO!!!”  By this time, the other customers could no longer contain their amusement.  I gave up trying to explain the details and resolved to communicate by letter upon returning home.

    Visits to five cities reflected a wide spectrum of Jewish history.  For instance, in Toledo, Seville and Cordoba, the Jewish history and presence have been preserved or restored.  On the other hand, in Granada, there is virtually nothing left of a once-thriving Jewish community of an estimated 20,000.  My knowledgeable guide pointed out the site of the old Jewish quarter, then known as “Garnata Alyehud,” from which the entire city eventually took its name.

    While in Madrid, I attended services at the first synagogue built in Spain since the 14th century.  At Beth Yaakov, located at the end of a small alley, I was questioned extensively about my visit and any local connections, and my purse was thoroughly searched — all necessary precautions because of terrorist activities in the past.

    The encounters within the Jewish communities led to typical adventures for the family historian.  For instance, in Madrid, I met with Dr. Iacob N. Hassan, director of Sephardic Studies at the Arias Montano Institute.  A few days later, while visiting in Seville, I had a meeting with Simon Hassan, president of the Jewish community there.  I produced Iacob Hassan’s business card, intent on joining two previously unknown families together — a genealogist’s ultimate goal. Simon Hassan smiled when he read the card and said “mi hermano” (my brother).  So much for that ‘new’ family reunion.

    The Spanish Government Tourist Office offers two booklets which can be helpful: “Exploring the Jewish Heritage in Spain” and “A Journey through Jewish Spain.”  To obtain them, write to 665 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10022.  A beautifully illustrated book, Jewish Roots in Spain (published by Iberia Airlines) is available from Sephardic House, 8 West 70th Street, New York, NY 10023 ($20.00 plus postage).

    The recent trip produced invaluable additions to my library, including two volumes of Jews of Toledo by Pilar Leon Tello (Madrid, 1979), with an index of names and biographical data.  This important work consists of a chronological inventory of documents dating back to 590 AD., but primarily from 1081 to 1578. A typical entry from 1492:

    “Cimha, wife of Symuel Abenmajor, deceased, Jusef his son and Yanto, his nephew, son of Jacob Ahen major and Ysaque Annohucno and Moses Pardo, as executors of Syinuel Abenmajor and of Jacob Abeninajor, sold a country estate through right of perpetual ownership to Martin de Hinojosa, who lives near Toledo, and half of the houses that belong to Cimha, her son and her nephew.  The houses are close to those of Yuda Alazra, the tax is payable to Ferrand Perez de Ayala; the houses have two rooms, well and stable, and they are bordering the houses of Abenharuel and the houses of Abengato, the old man.”

    Although Jewish “roots” in Spain date back many centuries, on-site research is more difficult than in other parts of the world.  In Spain, we are dealing with very old records and frequently are not aware of name changes taken by Jews who became “new Christians” or “Marranos.”  Usual sources throughout the world include synagogue records, Judaic libraries and archives, organizational records, vital records offices, and the typical record-keeping repositories. However, in Spain the cathedral archives and church records house many official records which can also be useful.

    Walking the narrow streets and alleys in the Jewish quarters of Toledo and Cordoba, I was perhaps retracing the footsteps of our Sephardic ancestors.  Subsequent research in Spain will form the basis of a continuing series of articles on sources for exploring Sephardic “roots” and - with luck — lead to documentation of the ancestry of my elusive “cousin,” Senor del Pozo.

    Miriam Weiner, C.G., specializes in Jewish and Eastern European ancestry and Holocaust research.  Her syndicated column “Roots and Branches” appears in over 85 publications nationwide, and she is co-editor of the forthcoming two-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy.  She has prepared a beginner’s guide (55 pages, $10.00 plus $2.50 postage and handling) on how to research Jewish family history that includes charts, lists of archives, bibliography, maps, family group sheets and more.  Information about this and other publications may be obtained by sending a SASE to her at 136 Sandpiper Key, Secaucus, NJ 07094.

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