Letter From Madrid - A City Ravaged By The Crisis

Despair in Madrid
Despair in Madrid
Juan Carlos Algañaraz

MADRID – Anyone who has ever been to Madrid knows the Plaza de España. But today, you might not recognize it.

The whole area, formerly prosperous and energetic, is a window on the crisis raging throughout Spain. Along the sides of the Plaza and in the side streets, there are entire rows of closed storefronts, some with broken windows, already filled with dust. The main building in the Plaza, which was once the tallest in Europe, used to house a hotel. It has closed, too.

The most striking detail is that along one side of the Plaza there are three modern office buildings in a row, each ten stories tall. They are all abandoned. At one point they were ‘occupied’ by homeless families and young people. The police evicted the squatters and bricked up the entrance. Where have these homeless people gone – are the children and the elderly living on the street?

There are tourists, both Spanish and foreigners, walking along Gran Via, Madrid’s main avenue. Here too are many examples of how the middle class is losing its identity and heritage.

Clara Isabel Rueda Garcia, 26, has a Spanish university degree. “I have done several continuing education courses to try to find work, but with no luck. I tried to find work as a waitress, and they told me that I didn’t have experience.” Like 970,000 other young Spanish people, about half of all the young people in Spain, she is still unemployed.

Her brother, Gonzalo, 22, has been looking for work for two years and has found nothing either. The siblings say that they have many friends who are also out of work, and, even worse, have homes with mortgages. If they cannot pay the bank, they will be evicted and will lose everything.

Santiago del Rio, 44, is an electrician who lives in Malaga. He has a 20-year-old daughter who is in school. He has only a couple more months of unemployment benefits, then he will have no income whatsoever. “I live from odd jobs, and the only thing I am sure about is that the future is dark.”

Carmen San Segundo Cordero, 56, was a French teacher at a private school. She was let go four years ago and all of her unemployment benefits have run out. Now she survives through barter. “We need another social model. The government is against us, it doesn’t represent us.”

Slightly more than eight million Spaniards are poor, and of those, two million are already below the poverty line.

Foreclosures and debts

The gates of the former headquarters of the Caja de Ahorros de Madrid (Madrid Savings Bank), with 10 million accounts, are covered with signs denouncing the tragedy of the evicted, a phenomenon of extraordinary social importance. In front of the symbolic building, a group tells the story of what has happened to so many people. They borrowed money to buy a home, then lost their jobs and could not pay, then lost their homes. In addition, they discovered that, in spite of the foreclosure of their home, they still owed an enormous amount of money to the bank, which itself, after almost failing, is now called Bankia.

Mariano Caminos has lived through this all-too-common scenario, and now there are nights when he sleeps in doorways, joining the many families who are demanding that the seizure of their homes be considered the end of their mortgage, without having to pay additional fees.

These are the dramatic accounts that complete the human picture of the Spanish crisis, which is totally different from others. There is an extraordinary number of unemployed people - one in every four workers has no job - as a result of the bursting of the real estate bubble. 

At the same time, the enormous mortgage debt many families have has created another bruising social condition, with more and more victims as time goes by. Spain used to have a suicide rate so low that it barely registered on European statistics. Now depression is on the rise, as is suicide.

Groups of neighbors and youth organizations fight the police to prevent evictions. The heart-breaking scenes are often shown on television. Jose Miguel Domingo was waiting for the police to come and evict him from his home in Granada. The 53-year-old newspaper vendor hanged himself in his home six days ago.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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