From a series of articles I wrote for Haaretz on being a Jew in Barcelona.
Epiphany in a Spanish neo-Nazi bookstore
By Roi Ben-Yehuda
I came to Barcelona on a skipped heartbeat. I fell in love with a woman who lived in the Catalonian capital, and I decided to pack up a suitcase and move to Spain. It was as simple as that. But when I arrived my heart skipped another beat, only this time it was for a less auspicious reason – there were swastikas everywhere.
Barcelona is a beautiful city. People often say that about a lot of places, but in the case of Barcelona it also happens to be true. Barcelonians are an extremely affable people who exhibit the virtue of patience and gentleness that an Israeli/New Yorker like myself can only admire covetously. And whatever quality they lack, they make up for in architecture. Walking through the streets of Barcelona is like walking through a symphony of frozen music: one is surrounded by a myriad of buildings that verge on the sublime.
For all its beauty and friendliness, my eyes kept turning, again and again, on something I couldn’t quite believe. In just about every place I looked, I saw swastikas and anti-swastika graffiti. From giant spray-painted images adorning the walls of otherwise innocuous buildings, to tiny ones on the back of benches. From pro-Nazi slogans telling all foreigners to leave the country, to anti-Nazi statements which read: “Nazis, there will not be mercy! Never forget, never forgive. Nazi die!”
Much to my surprise, the Nazi issue was very much alive on the walls and benches of Barcelona.
In today’s Spain, like in much of modern Europe, the symbol of the swastika is thick with meaning that transcends its World War II context. Of course it is not that the swastika has been appropriated to mean something new, rather it is just that it has been extended to its logical conclusion of all-embracing hate of the other.
If the presence of swastikas were not enough, Barcelona also has the dubious honor of being home to Europe’s most famous neo-Nazi bookstore, brazenly titled “Europa Bookstore: Persecuted Books – The Truth Will Set You Free.”
A bookstore full of Nazi-phile content is a particularly vulgar phenomenon for a Jewish writer. I can take Nazi speeches and demonstrations. I can take Nazi videos. I can even take Nazi music. But books? I find books to be the ultimate symbol of civilization. For me to desecrate a book has nothing to do with ripping apart its pages, or burning them – rather, it has everything to do with words.
A neo-Nazi bookstore is therefore a store dedicated to graphic abominations. I am aware that books, like any form of cultural technology, are amoral – vehicles for communication that can carry messages of falsehood or truth, beauty or ugliness, hate or love. But as a bibliophile and as a Jew (can the two really be differentiated), I reject such neutrality.
During my first few weeks in Barcelona I mustered the courage to pay Europa Bookstore a visit. I was surprised to see how well kept and attractive the store actually was; if I hadn’t known better, I would have been excited to enter. In the store’s front window, right below the sign reading, “the truth will set us free,” I noticed that they accept American Express – a rarity in Barcelona.
The books in the store were a literary mix covering revisionism, fascism, Israel-bashing, Hitler-praising, anti-immigration and homophobia. To this was added DVDs and CDs of Hitler’s “greatest hits.”
In my best Spanglish, I told a young woman who asked if I needed help that I would like to take some pictures and talk to her. She hesitated and then declined, but told me that I could “come back tomorrow and speak to the leader.”
But then something happened to me. Perhaps it was all the Nazi material, or the war between my brain (a staunch believer of free speech) and my heart (an elitist moralist), or maybe it was the thought of my Holocaust survivor grandmother seeing me inside this den of disgrace; but as I walked around I had a “for the six million!” moment. One of those moments that lead Jews to do something about injustice. So I took out my camera and started taking pictures. It wasn’t much, but it was my way of giving the middle finger to everything the store stood for (and blowing the journalistic opportunity to meet “the leader”).
As I walked out of the store I heard a voice shouting behind me, it was the young woman who had offered to help me earlier.
“I saw you take pictures”, she said.
“No, you didn’t.”
“Give me your camera”, she had raised her voice. “I want to see the pictures. I want to eliminate the pictures!”
Not sure if it was the translation of Spanish to English, but having a Neo-Nazi use the word “eliminate” in a sentence while talking to me got my blood flowing and my heart skipping beats again.
“I bet there are a lot of things you want to eliminate,” I uttered nervously, “but you are not getting my camera.”
She gave me a baleful look and stormed back into the store. I knew it was high time for me to leave, before I had the privilege of becoming acquainted with her friends. But I also knew I would have to return.
Indeed, later that night, when the store was closed, I revisited the scene (a mere 10 minutes walk from my house). Much to my surprise I found a plaque I had overlooked in my earlier visit.
Situated on the ground, right next to the store, was a commemorative inscription that read: “Anne Frank 1929-1945”.
Apparently the neighbors in the street had their own “for the six million!” moment, and had petition the city government to post this plaque as a reminder to all who enter the store.
Being in a neo-Nazi bookstore in Europe was a profound experience for me. It seems that I walked into the bookstore a human being, and I left a Jew. But I also left the store more Muslim, black, and gay than I did coming in. A foreigner in the true sense of the word: ready for chutzpa-filled action in the face of moral abomination.
Perhaps Barcelona was going to be alright after all.
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