Passover in Portugal

A journey from the past to the present.

GENIE MILGROM poses as she prepares for the Seder. The kitchen of the hotel in Trancoso is where Shavei Zion built a synagogue. (photo credit: GENIE MILGROM)
GENIE MILGROM poses as she prepares for the Seder. The kitchen of the hotel in Trancoso is where Shavei Zion built a synagogue.
(photo credit: GENIE MILGROM)
Having discovered my lineage dating back to pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal, I felt compelled to travel back in time and confront my history head-on. I had traced 22 grandmothers in an unbroken maternal lineage. The first 15, counting backwards, were from Spain, and grandmothers 16-22 were from Portugal, from an area known as Trás-os-Montes – a historical province in the country’s northeastern corridor of the country that literally means “beyond the mountains.”
My family hailed from many small villages in this area, including Braganza, Miranda, Mogadouro and Macedo de Cavaleiros, and they were a relatively large family of merchants, shoemakers, tanners and furriers that only married among themselves. They were the well-known crypto-Jewish family of Ramirez-Rodriguez-Fernandes and part of the Mogadouro and Marques family.
They were caught again and again by the Inquisition Tribunal of Coimbra in Portugal, and many perished in its cells or in the large autos-da-fé that were held in the town square.
With my own history in the back of my mind, I contacted Rabbi Elisha Salas, the chief rabbi of Belmonte, a village in Portugal now famous for its unbroken line of hidden Jews. Together we planned to prepare for Passover with a Shabbat that would include the telling of my story at the local synagogue, and the making of matza on Sunday, the day before the holiday. Baking matza openly had not been done in this region of Portugal since Inquisition times.
My husband Michael and I would then travel to Trancoso, a village in the center of the country, to make Seders for bnei anusim (descendants of crypto-Jews) who were students of the rabbi. It was important to me to reach out to the bnei anusim who are struggling to regain their identities and show them, by example, how it was entirely possible to crack their Catholic identity and emerge as Jews.
We began our journey a week before Passover in Porto. Our guide was surprised that we had no interest in the city’s Catholic history. As we passed church after church in search of Jewish sites, I understood that we had to scratch beneath the surface of what appeared to be a totally Catholic city.
WE STARTED at a large square where, we learned, the public spectacle of the autos- da-fé had taken place. It was during these “celebrations” that the Jews who had been caught practicing Judaism would be humiliated and then burned at the stake for the amusement of the Christians.
I also learned that for four years, Porto had been a seat of the tribunals of the Inquisition, until this was moved to Coimbra.
After a visit to the “new” Jewish quarter, which showed no outward signs of anything Jewish except for a plaque on the side of a monastery making reference to the Inquisition, our guide took us to see from afar the expanse of what had been the “old” Jewish quarter. This area had thrived above ground before the start of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1496. We saw the place where the central synagogue had stood, and at a Catholic old age home we were able to see a centuries-old stone aron kodesh (Torah ark) that had been found behind the walls after recent remodeling.
On we went to the current “sinagoga” and marveled at this large and magnificent edifice, which is active once again and proudly celebrating its 75th anniversary.
We saw the mikve (ritual bath), as well as a small but comprehensive library and museum commemorating the work done by Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Bastos, the champion of crypto-Jews in the early part of the 20th century.
Our next stop was Coimbra, once the seat of the Inquisition Tribunals that governed the North of Portugal and where most of my family had been judged. I had not been looking forward to that part of the journey, as I would have to face the actual Inquisition prison that remains there.
THE DOOR to the house of the Grand Inquisitor in Coimbra is still a regal construction, despite centuries of wind blowing on the sandstone.THE DOOR to the house of the Grand Inquisitor in Coimbra is still a regal construction, despite centuries of wind blowing on the sandstone.
Coimbra is a hauntingly beautiful city, yet I felt its dark past. We were shown the Jewish sites by government representatives and archeologists. They guided us through the old “juderia” of Coimbra, and we saw where the synagogue was known to have stood. We also saw the walls of the Jewish Quarter and its small entrance, just steps away from the magnificent entrance to the home of the Grand Inquisitor.
We then walked around the large plaza where the many autos-dafé had taken place and where the Jews had been killed for simply being Jews.
I found myself shivering in the heat as I stood there, surrounded by large churches and Catholic monuments. I was unable to find the usual evidence of crypto-Jewish crosses scratched into the walls and doorways, as evidence in the juderia streets was long gone.
The highlight of the tour was a visit to a suspected mikve that was discovered barely six months ago. It was very difficult to get an appointment to see it as it is privately owned and sits dead center in the middle of the busiest shopping area of the town. As we walked down the stairs into a cavernous opening, we clearly saw the usual seven steps leading into a crystalline turquoise pool. It was cold, dank and musty. Very few people have had the privilege to be inside and I knew that we had walked into a piece of history that was as still as the waters below us. The holding tank and all the other elements of a mikve were there and a fresco over the water was dimly visible. There was a space above with two balconies and the whole thing was utterly breathtaking. Right now it seems there is dispute over ownership and no one is able to work on restoration.
AS WE neared the Inquisition prison, my hands became cold and clammy. I could barely breathe as we were led into the actual cells. They were small and cramped, and each had held countless Jews, kept in the dark and spied upon through holes in the ceiling. We learned that the walls of the torture chambers had been painted black to add to the misery and confusion of the torture chambers. An original ring from the torture device is still visible on one of the ceilings. I was told that there was an inscription found on a stone that said: “It is 1627 and I am still here.”
There was no signature nor starting date. We saw the cobblestones over which the crypto-Jews walked out into the courtyard to be made into public spectacles. I was happy to move on to other parts of Portugal, yet I felt my own identity as a Jew had been solidified the minute I set foot in that cell.
We made our way to Belmonte for Shabbat and were pleasantly surprised to find a vibrant Jewish Community complete with shops selling kosher products, local kosher wines and cheeses and local handicrafts. I realized that Belmonte had come a long way, at least on the surface, since the discovery of the crypto-Jews that had survived the Inquisition in this tiny hamlet, nestled in the mountains.
THE SIMPLE exterior of the synagogue in Belmonte, built at the end of the 60s and rebuilt in the early 90s, covers an elegant interior and lively communal participation.THE SIMPLE exterior of the synagogue in Belmonte, built at the end of the 60s and rebuilt in the early 90s, covers an elegant interior and lively communal participation.
The history of Belmonte is well known. The Jews who were discovered circa 1925 were said to have been from the same original families that had hidden themselves away and for centuries thought they were the last Jews on earth. As a matriarchal society, they memorized all the prayers and kept their traditions alive. I had also read that they had an innate distrust of strangers, and indeed it was only after I gave my talk that they began to warm to me.
We found “Beit Anusim,” a house that Rabbi Elisha Salas, who works for Michael Freund’s organization, Shavei Israel, has equipped with a kitchen, beds and sufficient amenities for overnight Shabbat guests and students. The kitchen was bustling, the tables were set for a group of around 20, and the scene was vibrant, happy and chaotic.
Rabbi Salas is also the shohet and had slaughtered the animals for Shabbat and the upcoming Passover holiday the previous week. The old Jewish community of Belmonte keeps to itself and does not mix with the students that come to Rabbi Salas – descendants of crypto-Jews from other parts of the country – to learn their ancestral religion all over again. You could see the dedication and intensity in their faces as they sat around the table.
The next morning at dawn, joined by students and others from Israel, Spain and the United States, we went to the local bakery to kasher and prepare everything to be ready to bake matza. The wood stove was stoked carefully and all the rolling pins and implements we had brought with us were brought out. The matza was made, adhering to the strict laws of 18 minutes per batch, with a full cleanup in between. The women and the men worked together, singing while pounding the dough. We made three beautiful batches of matza that would be used over the next days at the Seders.
This was the very first time in 500 years that matza had been openly made in Belmonte. As we left, we felt that we had given the students and the community a bond with their past, something tangible that they could take from their ancestors and into their future. The dough of the matza had worked its magic as it did in generations before.
As I was leaving Belmonte, two of the older community members asked me and Ana, a young descendant of crypto-Jews and a student, to join them in their home.
They do not usually allow others in. There was something mysterious about them as we walked alongside them down a long well-worn path of cobblestones. Once inside, the elder gave me two antique and metal containers and she taught me how to braid a natural linen ball into seven strands, join them and light them from pure olive oil. She then taught me the prayer to light the candles that had been said by them for generations and never written down and only memorized. It was a very special moment for me. My family is not from Belmonte, but I felt a bond and force that pulled me into their “secret club.” I was honored and will be lighting tonight with those ancestral containers in my own home.
Our next stop was the small town of Caria, where a government representative met us and proudly showed us through their town. It was full of the crypto-Jewish crosses on the outside walls of what was known as the Jewish Quarter, as evidence of the crypto-Jews that had lived there. The government has placed dozens of plaques all through the town, showing the exact shapes of the drawings.
It is very interesting to note that these “crosses” that are part of the architecture of crypto-Jews are so common in Portugal, and are all up and down the Trás-os-Montes area of my family, and yet so little has been written about them.
The highlight was to see a beautiful Temple menorah painted in one corner of the ceiling of the large church. It seemed to me that Caria is only starting to see the evidence of its Jewish past, and that we will hear much good news from this village in the future.
FINALLY WE reached Trancoso, where we would host two Seders for 40 people, including the students of Rabbi Salas, three families from Israel who wanted to share this unique experience with their children and several Jewish descendants of crypto-Jews from Porto, Lisbon and Spain. We met up for the first time at the Hotel de Turismo Trancoso, a lovely four-star hotel whose owners had graciously allowed us to fully take over one kitchen and supplied us with cooks, waiters and other staff.
We arrived at noon on the eve of Passover, and descended on the kitchen to kasher, boil, and re-kasher everything until we felt satisfied. Members of the group spoke variously in Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese, but with the help of English and some French we managed to communicate, chop and dice and prepare a beautiful Seder in just a matter of hours. We had our boiled eggs, our handmade matza, our karpas and all the necessary trimmings. Some of our group could eat kitniyot and others could not, yet by the time the first Seder began, everything had flowed together in a most melodious fashion.
The Haggada was read in Hebrew and then translated to Portuguese, with commentaries added in Spanish. With the help of the families from Israel the singing and dancing and merrymaking were over the top. The men danced around the table and the emotion on the faces of the students was almost too much. Not only was this their first Seder, but they felt a strong connection with their ancestors and almost everyone cried from happiness at some point during the night.
My turn to do so was when an elderly gentleman from Israel came up to me, took my hands in his and told me that he was a Holocaust survivor. He thanked me with tears in his eyes for the work that we are doing in helping and easing all these bnei anusim back to the Jewish People. He asked permission to sing Had Gadya at the end of the night with a tune that was sung in the camps during the Passover season. The bonds that resulted from those special days spent in Portugal will be with us forever and I can proudly say that I was able to physically witness the flames glowing brighter inside each and every one of the bnei anusim present. They will no longer have to be just historical Jews as evidenced by ancestral traces on the walls of the small villages. They can be part of our people today in 2014.
The writer is president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami and author of
My 15 Grandmothers and How I Found My 15 Grandmothers.