April 1506: the converso massacre in Lisbon

What was the secret of the Portuguese conversos? How did they manage to salvage shreds of identity that could have easily been lost?

‘Mysteries of Lisbon or What The Tourist Should See’ Portugal Film Festival (photo credit: PR)
‘Mysteries of Lisbon or What The Tourist Should See’ Portugal Film Festival
(photo credit: PR)
On September 4, 1603 – at the Ne’ila prayer concluding Yom Kippur – the “rigorous police of Amsterdam” raided the secret Jewish service in their jurisdiction. Ashkenazi Rabbi Uri Halevi of Emden and his son were arrested by the Dutch authorities for receiving stolen goods and circumcising adults. But the tolerant Protestants of the Netherlands released the two spiritual leaders and these rabbis continued with their activities. This was the beginning of the flourishing of conversos in Amsterdam returning to reclaim their Jewish identity and life after descending from Jews forced to convert to Catholicism by the Portuguese kingdom more than a century before in 1497. If you want to learn more about the Sephardi community of returnees to Judaism, please read Miriam Bodian’s award-winning Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (1997). It is a fascinating portrait of a highly successful refugee, in which conversos not only returned to Judaism but were acculturated and contributed in a significant way to Dutch life and business. Also, it is worth taking a look at Steven Nadler’s Rembrandt’s Jews (2003), a study of the relation between Jews and Christians in Amsterdam through the lens of the master artist and his career.
The central question in my mind regards these conversos – how is it 100 years after their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism that they lived publicly as Christians, had no Jewish teachers or rabbis and were forbidden as heretics to practice Judaism in secret yet still had the fortitude or knowledge to return to the faith of their ancestors? It is an urgent question because today we face the phenomenon of Jewish life and identity disappearing within just three generations in a nation where there is religious freedom and Jews are free to live as Jews. What was the secret of the Portuguese conversos? How did they manage to salvage shreds of identity that could have easily been lost?
I propose three reasons for this amazing phenomenon but want to focus on the first, in particular. In the words of historian Jacob R. Marcus: “In 1497, all the Jews of Portugal were compelled by the King to become Christians, yet these ‘New Christians’ continued in secret to practice the Jewish faith.” The reason for this secret Judaism was the reality that most of the Jews forced to convert to Catholicism in Portugal had already expressed their commitment to Judaism and Jewish identity by leaving Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain in 1492 rather than become Christians. These exiles immigrated to Portugal rather than take the risk – many did take that risk – of traveling by sea or road to Italy or the Ottoman Empire. They were betrayed in Portugal only five years after the Spanish Expulsion.
The historian continues: “The Christian masses, fired by religious fanaticism, frightened by plague, and enraged by the economic competition – now unrestricted – of these secret-Jews, attacked them whenever they could. The worst outbreak occurred in 1506 when about two thousand were literally butchered and cremated. The unhappy incident so affected King Emanuel (1495-1521) that he permitted these pseudo-Christians to leave the country, if they wished, and to take their property with them.”
The details of the brutal massacre are taken from an account, presented by Marcus, from the pen of Geronymo Osorio (1506-1580), a sympathetic Catholic priest who composed a history of King Emanuel’s reign. Osorio describes a Lisbon battered by drought, plague and high prices. It was the season of Easter, as well, often a deadly time for Jews in Christian lands.“The fury and madness of the rabble” proved disastrous for the city’s conversos. When one convert denied an illumination of an icon of Jesus as a miracle in St. Dominic’s Church on Sunday, April 19, the Christians called the new convert “a perfidious, wicked betrayer of religion and an outrageous and malicious enemy of Christ, and declared him worthy of torture and death.” The denying converso was dragged to the town square and the mob tore him to pieces. Dominican monks at the execution of this unfortunate man cried out “Heresy, heresy! Avenge the heresy, and extinguish the wicked race!” Whipped up in the frenzy by the monks and joined by French and German sailors docked in the Lisbon harbor, the mob “fell upon the wretched Jews, of whom they killed great numbers, and threw many half alive into the flames.” The sailors plundered the homes of the conversos and took the valuables back to their ships. The carnage continued for two more days. While the King was disgusted by the cruelty of this pogrom and hanged many of the perpetrators of this murder, this massacre only served to frighten and alienate the conversos. Why become good Catholics when there is only fanatical hatred and contempt against you for being born a Jew? No wonder that a century after this massacre conversos returned to Judaism in havens like Amsterdam.
Beside the Lisbon massacre, there are two other important reasons that Portuguese conversos fled Portugal and Catholicism, even after 100 years of living openly as Catholics: the introduction of the Inquisition into Portugal to root out conversos practicing Judaism in secret (this took place 30 years after the Lisbon massacre) and the “Purity of Blood Laws.” The Dominican monks lobbied for a generation to bring in the Inquisition courts to root out heresy. They succeeded – in 1536 the Inquisition was introduced in Portugal and the first conversos burned at the stake in 1540. The Inquisition further alienated conversos from their new faith and ignited their yearning to return to Judaism.
Finally, the limpieza de sangre (“Purity of Blood Laws”) first instituted in Spain before the Expulsion, took hold in Portugal after 1497. These anti-Jewish racial laws foreshadow the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws by four centuries. Conversos, though Catholics, were forbidden to hold public and ecclesiastical offices because they were descendants of Jews. Efforts later to ease these anti-Jewish laws were thwarted by the Church and the masses of Spain and Portugal. Yet another reason conversos rejected a populace and religion that hated them. It is therefore no surprise that the Amsterdam authorities discovered a secret synagogue service more than one century after the forced conversion.
I leave you with two thoughts. The first – if the Catholics in Portugal really wanted Jews to embrace their new faith why were they not far more welcoming and less murderous and discriminatory. Second – the terrible Lisbon massacre, the introduction of the Inquisition and the Purity of Blood Laws drove Jews back into the arms of Judaism and Jewish identity. It did not matter that they lived openly as Catholics. They were despised and they knew it. Their story is both tragic and inspiring.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.