This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of an unsung Jewish hero,
Captain Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto.
His exploits extended from the
battlefields of World War I to the struggle to reclaim crypto-Jewish identity,
but this intrepid figure met a cruel and unwarranted end at the hands of
Portugal’s dictatorial regime. Despite the passage of so many decades, the
injustice committed against him cries out for resolution. The time has
come to give this man his due.
Barros Basto came from a family of Bnei
Anusim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”), descendants
of Jews whose ancestors had been forced to convert to Catholicism in the 15th
Raised a Catholic, he went on to become a decorated soldier who
commanded a Portuguese infantry company in World War I, where he fought in the
trenches of Flanders and took part in the allied offensive to liberate
After the war Barros Basto decided to re-embrace the faith of
his forefathers. He studied Judaism intensively, then traveled to Spanish
Morocco in December 1920 to undergo a formal return to the Jewish people before
a rabbinical court.
Back in Portugal, Barros Basto settled in the
northern city of Oporto, where he launched a public campaign to persuade other
Bnei Anusim to return to their roots. Donning his military uniform and
medals, he traveled among the towns and villages of Portugal’s interior, giving
rousing speeches, conducting Jewish services and seeking to inspire others to
follow his example. After centuries of hiding, thousands of Bnei Anusim answered
his call and tentatively agreed to join his movement.
Barros Basto turned
to world Jewry for help, and succeeded in raising the necessary funds to build
the magnificent Mekor Haim synagogue, which still stands in Oporto. He opened a
yeshiva that operated for nine years, where dozens of young Bnei Anusim learned
about Jewish life and lore. He also single-handedly produced a Jewish newspaper,
(the Torch), and was responsible for the publication of numerous books
on Jewish history and law in Portuguese.
BUT HIS open identification with
Judaism, and the thousands of people whom he touched, did not sit well with the
government or with Church authorities. They sought to quell his nascent movement
by bringing him up on charges connected to the practice of the Jewish religion.
On June 12, 1937, the Superior Disciplinary Council of the Portuguese Army
concluded that Barros Basto lacked the “moral capacity” to serve in its
And just what exactly was his “crime”?
Incredibly, the military
council declared that Barros Basto had “performed the operation of circumcision
of several students pursuant to a precept of the Israelite religion he
professes” and said that he was excessively affectionate toward his
As a result, they summarily drummed him out of the armed forces,
destroyed his career and sullied his name. This brought about an end to his
efforts to reawaken Portugal’s Bnei Anusim, many of whom saw the treatment meted
out to Barros Basto as a sign that the authorities would not tolerate their
return to Judaism.
In 1961, he died, a broken man. Stripped of his
rank and publicly humiliated because he was a Jew, Barros Basto has been likened
by historians such as Cecil Roth to Alfred Dreyfus, the French general staff
officer who was convicted of treason on trumped-up charges in 1894 and drummed
out of the military.
But unlike Dreyfus, Barros Basto has yet to receive
the exoneration he deserves. Once Portugal began its transition to democracy in
1975, his family appealed to the authorities to rectify the situation, but their
pleas fell on deaf ears.
For the past decade, Shavei Israel, the
organization I chair, has been involved in the Barros Basto case.
the years, we elicited support from American Jewish organizations such as the
Conference of Presidents, the Orthodox Union and the Religious Zionists of
America, all of whom have written to the Portuguese ambassador to Washington
about the matter.
Last month, on October 31, there was an important new
With the help of an attorney, the captain’s granddaughter,
Isabel Maria de Barros Lopes, submitted a formal request to the president of the
Portuguese parliament seeking her grandfather’s posthumous reinstatement into
Isabel told me that she is determined to see things
through. Just like her grandfather, she is not afraid to fight for what is
But more pressure must be brought to bear on Portuguese officials.
Contact your local Portuguese embassy or sign the petition to the leader of the
Portuguese parliament online at: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/pardon-Capt-Barros-Basto/
We must garner as much international support as
possible to bring closure to this painful chapter.
Barros Basto was a
courageous figure who stood up for the Jewish people, defying the powers that be
to help his brethren. He was a victim of anti-Semitism, so how can we remain
Several years ago, in the northern Portuguese village of Amarante, I
entered the local cemetery and stood before Barros Basto’s simple and unadorned
grave. Then and there, I made a promise to do what I could to restore his honor
and bring about justice.
There is now an unprecedented opportunity to do
so and we must not let it pass.
The stain on this noble man’s name is
also a stain on Portugal itself, and it is time for it to be removed, once and
Rehabilitate the Portuguese Dreyfus and let justice be done, so
that his soul may finally rest in peace.The writer is chairman of Shavei
Israel (www.shavei.org), an organization that assists lost tribes and hidden
Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.