PALMA, MAJORCA — The old stones of the historic quarter of the Spanish island of Majorca are worn smooth with secrets ignored by most tourists that pour into this city from cruise liners on the sparkling Mediterranean.
Bernat Pomar, 78, center, at an event organized by the regional government to remember Jewish victims of the Inquisition. Mr. Pomar recently converted to Judaism.
Rarely do visitors come with missions as precise as Joseph Wallis and a small contingent of Orthodox rabbis from Israel: To touch the smooth sandstones of a 14th-century synagogue turned into a Roman Catholic church. To offer a special 15th-century version of the Kaddish, a prayer for the dead that was once forbidden under threat of death and was delayed for 320 years.
They gathered Thursday for a memorial, the first by a local regional government in Spain, to confront a dark legacy of buried memories. Jews, who secretly practiced their forbidden religion during the Inquisition, were burned here in Gomila Plaza in a "bonfire of the Jews" in May 1691, and the descendants of Jews who converted were subject to discrimination that flourished even into the 20th century.
It was "our worst sin," said Francesc Antich, regional president of the Balearic Islands, who stopped short of issuing an apology for the killings of 37 people, three of them burned alive, including Rabbi Wallis's ancestor, Rafael Valls. "Memory opens wounds, but also helps to serve justice. The time has come to close these wounds that have bled generation after generation."
Discrimination remained so strong in Majorca that many of the converts' descendants, known locally as chuetas, still remember a schoolyard rhyme in the 1960s mocking the surnames of 15 families targeted by the Inquisition, or adults who shunned them for friendship and marriage. They also recall the customs of elderly chuetas who traced their fingers along the stone remnants of the former synagogue and surreptitiously kissed their fingertips.
"There was fear, always fear," said Bernat Pomar, 78, a retired violinist. "Behind the curtains, we were afraid. Chuetas are special because the community of Majorca shaped us."
Pomar was one of the 15 names in the childhood taunt. Others included Pico, Aguiló and Miró, the family name of the artist Joan Miró, who died here in 1983.
"When I was young they called me many insults because children were cruel," Mr. Pomar said. "Today it has changed, but it has not been forgotten."
Majorca, largely isolated until the tourist boom reached it and the other Balearic Islands in the late 1960s, developed into a wary preserve for descendants of Jews who protected themselves by making public professions of Catholic faith, marching in brotherhoods for Easter processions and carving crucifixes in stone in the warren of the island's Jewish quarter. The extensive family trees of descendants are intertwined because they married among themselves, scorned as marriage material by old Christian families.
With the arrival of floods of tourists from different countries, the island culture started to change, but a modest synagogue did not open in the center of Majorca until the 1970s and remains so low key that local taxi drivers say they have never heard of Comunitat Israelita de Mallorca, which is set back on a side street and protected by a special parking barrier.
Today, chuetas intermingle and marry among other Majorcans, but there is still a wariness tied to the history and culture of Spain, where surveys through the last 10 years have ranked it among European countries with the highest anti-Semitic opinions. A 2008 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that 46 percent of Spaniards viewed Jews unfavorably — then the highest negative rating in Europe — though since there has been some improvement.
A study issued last year by Casa Sefarad-Israel, an agency of the Spanish Foreign Ministry founded in 2006 to promote good relations with Spanish Jewry and Israel, found that negative views had dropped to 34.6 of the Spanish population. The figure was still high, though, and the anti-Semitic views tended to concentrate among Spaniards with left-of-center political leanings.
Diego de Ojeda, director of Casa Sefarad-Israel, said many Spaniards had never met Jews, noting that some of his own friends knew about Hanukkah, for example, from watching an episode of the U.S. television show "Friends."
"Majorca is very specific because it is the only part of Spain where there is a community that is directly descended from Jews, which has remained distinct since others would not marry them, up until two generations ago," he said. "There are other groups that are trying to dig back into their Jewish past in Spain, but in this case the descendants of this community are something very distinct, so this memorial could only have taken place in Majorca."
Some of the chuetas are trying to reclaim the religion of their ancestors from three centuries ago, an effort nurtured by Shavei Israel, a private group that offers support and education to descendants of Jews who converted in Spain and a number of other countries, including Portugal, Italy, Poland, India and China. The organization has also unsuccessfully pushed the cathedral in Majorca for the return of two gilded Jewish rimmonins, ritual finials from 1493 displayed in a church showcase.
"I am not here for my personal story," said Rabbi Wallis, who with Shavei's founder, Michael Freund, traveled to Majorca three months ago to press for an apology and a memorial on the 320th anniversary of the 1691 massacre.
"We asked the government for a memorial so the chuetas know they no longer need to be afraid to be a Jew," said Rabbi Wallis, who since his arrival found people related to him in the silver jewelry district, where some chuetas have maintained family shops since the 17th century.
Rabbi Wallis, 64, who was born in Israel and raised in New York, is the son of two Holocaust survivors from the Dachau camp. His father, he said, remembered an old family Bible, lost during World War II, with the name of Rafael Valls at the top of the list of ancestors with birth and death dates that listed him as burned at the stake.
On Thursday, his voice cracked with emotion as he read a special 15th-century Kaddish that was composed in the Netherlands specifically for victims of mass burnings with a blank space to insert names.
Rabbi Nissan Ben Abraham, who was raised Catholic and later converted to the dismay of his chueta father, a Majorca shopkeeper, read aloud the names of the 37 victims of the 1691 public execution, including the name of his own ancestor, Catalina Terongi. She was burned alive next to Rabbi Wallis's ancestor, Rafael Valls, and urged him, according to meticulous Inquisition records, to ignore his burning clothes and not to give up and renounce his own faith.
As the rabbi, whose family name is Aguiló, worked through the names, he declared a victim with the same last name as Bernat Pomar, who sat in a back row and simply nodded. The night before, the retired violinist had celebrated a small party with the visiting rabbis from Israel to mark his return to Judaism. At 78, he had undergone surgery for circumcision and finally had told his secret to his grown children this week.