Online database helps ‘hidden Jews’ find roots allows potential descendants of those who fled the Spanish Inquisition to search their ancestry.

December 28, 2011 01:43
3 minute read. 311. (photo credit: Courtesy of


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They were dispersed across the globe more than 500 years ago and took great pains to hide their true identities, but now, thanks to a new online database, Anusim, hidden Jews whose ancestors were forced to assimilate or convert during the Spanish Inquisition, might be able to trace their Jewish past.

With backing from a group of anonymous donors, was launched last week amidst little fanfare. Thanks to an extensive database of Sephardic Jewish names and meanings, anyone who suspects that they might have links to Judaism can begin their research by looking up the origins of their surname.

“This website should be seen as a gateway; not everyone who comes in will be able to find out if they are Jewish, and not everyone who comes to this site means that they are Jewish,” Sylvie Sontag, who is responsible for the content and outreach of the new website, told The Jerusalem Post.

“The names are just an indicator in identifying someone’s Jewish roots,” she continued, highlighting that there is little documented proof from the time of the Spanish Inquisition, which started in the mid- 1400s. The main government decrees forcing Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity or leave the country came in 1492 and 1501.

“Those who were expelled from Spain and Portugal took great pains to hide their Jewish roots and used many aliases,” said Sontag, continuing that “the issue of Anusim is very sensitive for a lot of people and we did not want to raise too much attention to it.”

She explained that in the past the Jews who left the region of Iberia during the inquisition not only hid their identities, but were deeply fearful of being exposed and that fear has been passed down for generations.

For others, there is a fear that their present communities will disapprove of their Jewish links.

Now, thanks to the nonprofit organization, whose services online are provided free of charge in English, Spanish and Portuguese, people who think they might have Jewish ancestry can sit in the privacy of their own homes and find out as much as possible about their past.

According to Sontag, the website, which allows visitors to type in the names of their maternal and paternal families, relies on sources compiled uniquely for the site with information drawn from museums, Spanish communal archives and other references on the subject.

It also lists certain geographical locations where people with Spanish Jewish names were registered, includes Jewish names found in cemeteries and cites the names of famous Spanish Jews.

As well as the name search, the website also includes video clips with personal stories of Anusim that have successfully traced their Jewish roots. There is also much information and numerous external links to other organizations working with these people, also known as Marranos, Conversos, Islanders, Chuetas and crypto-Jews. also lays out clear information on “Who is a Jew,” with a section explaining that, “according to Jewish Law, only a child born to a Jewish mother or an adult who has converted to Judaism is considered a Jew.”

The site also warns that the Jewish religion forbids proselytizing and “any modern- day ‘Jewish missionaries’ should be viewed with suspicion as they are not true representatives of the Jewish faith.”

While those behind have been reluctant to promote the website since its launch last Thursday, Sontag said that already a few thousand people have visited the site.

“It showed there was traffic from all over the world and makes clear that there is obviously a need for something like this,” said Sontag, adding that the number of descendants of the Anusim who are returning to their Jewish roots is steadily growing in places such as South America, Spain, Portugal and the southwestern US.

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