On the trail of the Jews of Portugal

Thousands of Jews were forced into Christianity.

Portugal synagogue (photo credit: Paul Ross)
Portugal synagogue
(photo credit: Paul Ross)
The weather was gray and gloomy in Lisbon two months ago, and it perfectly matched my mood. As I walked by the elegant and popular Rossio Square, I felt as though someone had stuck a dagger in my heart. I remembered a searing and beautiful mystical murder mystery I had read a few years ago called The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. In it, author Richard Zilmer wrote about a littleknown incident that happened in Lisbon in 1506. Spurred on by fanatical priests, locals stormed into the narrow warren of cobblestone streets in the Alfama district, which was inhabited by Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. They hauled out these secret Jews and burned between 2,000 and 4,000 of them at the stake over the course of a few days – in the Rossio.
I returned to the Rossio every day I was in Lisbon, trying to imagine the rising flames, the nauseating smell of charred flesh, the anguish of the anusim who were burned alive. I walked back and forth, wishing the mosaic tiles of the street would take the shape of an arrow, pointing to the exact spot where the autos-da-fe took place.
By the fourth day, I decided to do some sightseeing near the Rossio; the 12th-century Church of Santo Domingo was highly recommended. I was walking toward it when my husband, Paul, called out to me: “Look. It’s what you’ve been searching for.” He pointed to a large stone hemispheric sculpture with an inlaid Jewish star. It was dedicated, in Portuguese, to the thousands of Jewish victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism who were killed in a fiery massacre on April 19, 1506 in this place. On the base of the statue was a quotation in Hebrew and Portuguese from Job 16:18: “O earth, do not cover my blood; may my cry never be laid to rest.”
It wasn’t in the middle of the Rossio Square. It was off to the side, a few meters from the front of the church. Behind it was a long, gray wall where, in many languages, the following words were inscribed: “Lisbon, City of Tolerance.” I stood there for a long time, finally knowing where the flames leaped up and the agonized screams pierced the billows of smoke.
“Look, here!” Paul said, gesturing for me to walk over to where he was, directly in front of the church. Next to him were two off-white stone columns held together by an inscribed metal band emblazoned with words that apologized for the violence and intolerance against the Jewish people. It recognized the sad lot of the New Christians who were suspected of relapsing and turned over to the Inquisition, and begged forgiveness for the words and deed committed in the name of the Catholic Church. It was signed on September 26, 2000, by the patriarch of Lisbon.
The apology was good and laudatory. Most countries don’t have the humility to publicly atone for and stop whitewashing their past sins. But it didn’t make the pain of those 16th-century anusim go away.
We wandered into the nearby Alfama. On both sides of the narrow, labyrinthine streets, the wrought iron balconies of often-decrepit houses were so close they almost touched.
Clean sheets and bath towels, nightshirts, jeans and tablecloths were suspended on clotheslines, held in place by brightly-colored clothespins. A child’s T-shirt was adorned with hearts, teddy bears and the words, “From me to you.” Here and there, aluminum foil had replaced glass in window frames, and water trickled from an old stone fountain where pigeons dived in for an afternoon bath.
THE ONLY SOUNDS were birdsongs and the chatter of elderly women who sat in front of their houses, talking, laughing, legs outstretched, soaking up rays of sunshine. This is probably what the secret Jewish women had done 500 years ago, before they were tossed into the fire.
I carried the memory of the doomed Portuguese Jews with me when I traveled to the center and north of Portugal. In the historic town of Sabugal, I joined a small group for a guided tour. As we walked toward the evocative ruins of the castle, I heard the guide mutter, “Here they found an aron hakodesh.” At first I thought I had heard incorrectly, so I asked her to repeat what she said. “In the basement of this shop, on my left, there is an aron hakodesh,” she said again.
I left the group and ran into the store, where local foods, kitchenware and souvenirs were sold. The owner, Natalia Bispo, accompanied me downstairs, past a small restaurant to a rear room. She pointed to a large stone cupboard that was cut into the rear wall. At the bottom of the cupboard were two large, round holes.
My heart was pounding. I knew instinctively that the holes marked the spot where a Torah had once stood. For 15 years I have studied, written and talked about the secret Jews, but this was the first time I saw physical evidence of clandestine prayer in the very spot where it took place. Bispo spoke excitedly and rapidly in Portuguese, and I tried to follow what she was telling me about the shop and the ark.
“About four years ago, my husband and I purchased this very old, completely dilapidated stone house. As you can see, it is on Santa Maria do Castelo, the main street that leads to the castle. We wanted to transform the house into a restaurant and shop called Casa do Castelo, where we could sell regional products and local crafts. During the restoration process, we uncovered something startling: Embedded in a thick granite wall, about three feet from the floor, was an unusual cupboard. It had a wooden frame, two wooden doors, and inside were two stone shelves. At the bottom of the lower one were two circles sunken into the granite. Two archeologists came to examine it and determined that it was an altar of Jewish worship, a ‘cupboard of the Law,’ an aron hakodesh, or ark. The stone circles were supports for the Torah scroll.”
According to Bispo, there was no evidence of a Jewish presence in Sabugal before the discovery in her store. There is some speculation that the ark dates to a time before the Inquisition, when Jews and Catholics lived together in peace. My mind whirled and danced back to the past, sorting through a Rolodex of possible explanations. Was I looking at evidence of a synagogue? The home of a rabbi? Who had prayed there? Did this ark exist before the Inquisition? Was it used during and after the Inquisition?
“Come with me,” Bispo said. She led me back upstairs, outside, and pointed to something incised on the exterior stone wall of the old house. It was the mark of New Christians, Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism: a cross surrounded by an owlshaped frame.
Sabugal is near the border of Spain. Did forced émigrés from that country settle in the house? After conversion to Catholicism, did they – at great peril – continue to worship secretly?
When I left Bispo, I drove about 45 minutes to the mountain town of Belmonte; it was my third visit. In 1988, about 150 crypto-Jews stunned the world by coming out of hiding en masse. Support poured in, and today the small community has a stunning synagogue and museum and is a magnet for tourists. In the museum is a wall covered with names of secret Jews from the region who were murdered during the Inquisition.
In the museum, I met Antonio Mendes, a retired policeman and the newly elected president of the Jewish community, and excitedly told him about the discovery of the cupboard-cum-ark in Sabugal. As he listened, he shook his head knowingly. “It’s not so unusual,” he said.
“I think it’s amazing,” I protested. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“No, it’s not so unusual," he repeated.
Suddenly, I understood the subtext of what he was saying. It was not so unusual for him.
“Antonio, did you have an ark in your house when you grew up as a crypto-Jew?”
He nodded.
“Would you be able to show it to me?”
He led me down a narrow road to his mother’s old house, which is now abandoned and used as a warehouse. He pushed aside and stepped over cartons and old furniture and pointed to two wooden doors on the back wall. One of them was completely blocked by old possessions and boxes, but Mendes was able to open the other to reveal two stone shelves.
“This is where my family kept an oil lamp which we lit on Friday nights for Shabbat,” he explained.
“One day. Two arks,” I said, overcome.
Mendes smiled.
I begged him to tell me if he remembered other secret Jewish traditions in his family. He recalled that besides making matza by baking dough on roof tiles, no one worked during Pessah; they spent their days in the fields, eating, singing and dancing. They also cut a branch from a tree and beat the local river with it; it was a reenactment of the parting of the waters by Moses.
I HUGGED Mendes good-bye and headed for Porto, the second largest city in Portugal. It is famous for its sweet fortified wine (port) and its picturesque port at the mouth of the Douro River. I had an appointment to meet with Jorge Neves, the vice president of the Jewish community, which is comprised of about 80 families who gather and worship at Mekor Hayim Kadoori, the largest Sephardi synagogue in Iberia and the only active synagogue in northern Sepharad.
Neves had arranged the meeting at his charming, cluttered studio, where he works as a filmmaker, producer, director and animator. Within five minutes of exchanging greetings, he informed me that he was the vice president of the crypto-Jewish community, and Mekor Hayim Kadoori was built for Marranos (a term Neves prefers). My eyes grew wide as he spoke.
He explained that, after the forced conversions and persecutions that began half a millennium ago, many secret Jews married into old Christian families for protection. The second son often went into the priesthood to shield his parents and siblings.
According to Neves, before the Inquisition, 35 percent of the population of Porto was Jewish. It was a bourgeois, liberal, mercantile town. King Joao I helped the Jews, probably because his own mother was Jewish. He provided an area of the city for a Jewish quarter. Many of the luminaries of the north – Pedro Nunez, the navigator; Abraham Zacuto, whose celestial almanac and improved astrolabe permitted Columbus and Vasco da Gama to find their way home; and the philosopher Uriel Acosta – were clandestine Jews.
“With the advent of the Inquisition, even though it did not have an official seat in Porto, no Jews were left in Porto or anywhere in Portugal; all were forcibly converted,” Neves said. “The Inquisition lasted well into the 19th century. Even today, many Jews still keep their identities secret. My own father never told me that we were Jewish. I grew up without any religious education, but with the awareness that men never entered a church – even when there was a family funeral. And we had other customs, like changing clothes on Friday night.”
“What religion did your father say you belonged to?” I asked.
“He didn’t. He never said anything about it. To this day, he still won’t say.”
The more Neves learned about being Jewish, the more he longed to leave behind the secular life and formally become a Jew. Three years ago, he was one of 18 people from his community who went to Jerusalem to meet with a beit din and formalize their return to Judaism. Today, he is Orthodox, and he has an insatiable curiosity to know more about who he is and who his people are. He said his “small community with a big synagogue considers itself to be liberal Orthodox.” Then he added, with a grin, “I am a paradox. I practice liberal traditionalism. I am also the only one in my family who is becoming religious.”
One of his heroes is Captain Barros Basto, who is sometimes referred to as the apostle of the Marranos, and who remains unrecognized in Portugal. Basto, who discovered his own secret Jewish roots, built the Mekor Hayim Kadoori synagogue for Marranos at a time when Hitler was bent on wiping out European Jewry. Basto gathered up the secret Jews in the villages of northern Portugal and took in Eastern European Jewish refugees. He was a threat to the church and, according to Neves, he still is a threat today.
“The government isn’t interested in exploring the Jewish past in Portugal, and even the Jews in Lisbon turn a deaf ear to the Marrano community in Porto and Barros Basto,” Neves reported.
Equally sad is the fact that the Ashkenazi Jews Basto brought to Porto became the majority in the synagogue and they threw him out. He was dismissed from the military and his yeshiva was closed. “Today, Marranos are the majority,” Neves said proudly.
And then, to my delight, Neves offered to take me on a walking tour of Jewish Porto. He passed the Olive Field, next to the old city walls, where olive trees used to grow in the Middle Ages; olive oil was very important in Jewish cooking. Rich Jews lived inside the city walls and poorer Jews outside of them. There were even two synagogues: one for wealthy and one for impecunious Jews. Today, only a plaque and the stairway to the wealthy synagogue remain.
“It was such an important synagogue,” Neves said, “that it was copied when they built a synagogue in Amsterdam.”
We passed old houses with typically Jewish, stoneframe windows – when the sun shone on the windows, a Jewish star would appear. Then a retirement home where they recently found another secret ark for Marrano practices. Over another house, a sign indicated that a Jewish merchant named Barboza once lived there. “And on this street, scientists, astronomers, people like Zacuto lived. They were the teachers of the great explorers,” Neves said. He pointed to the place where a medieval Jewish cemetery and the second, poorer synagogue, once stood.
“How do you know this?” I asked.
“My grandfather, whom people called ‘The Jew,’ passed it on to me orally,” he answered.
That night, Neves took me to the magnificent synagogue to meet Filipe Ferrao, who is president of the Marrano community, professor of clinical psychology and holds a PhD in neuroscience. He concurred with what Neves had told me, adding his own delicious details. He said that this fall, there will be a special congress for 11 communities in northern Portugal; after half a millennium of hiding, they are coming out and proudly saying they are Jewish.
“I have been a member of this community since 1988,” Ferrao said, “and we only started to gain recognition a few years ago. My father never told me what religion we were. He never went to church, but would never say he was Jewish. I remember things like this: When I was a child, we counted three stars in the sky so we would know when it was the end of Sabbath. My grandmother told me that if I counted out loud, I would get warts. She didn’t want to say we were Jews and would get caught for being Jewish.
“We also had to place bread vertically on the table runner. If it were placed horizontally, it could be perceived as being a cross. We swept dirt to the center of the house, so that it would never go past the mezuza. We cleaned the house profoundly before ‘Easter,’ which was Passover. We were cleaning the hametz. And my grandmother lit oil lamps for Sabbath. We did all of this, but we didn’t know we were Jewish.”
One day, a girl told Ferrao she shared his last name, and explained they were part of a Jewish clan from the Beiras region. “I felt great emotion,” Ferrao said. “I went to Paris to a Shabbat for the first time. Can you imagine? Today they are doing genetic studies of northern and central Portugal and 28 percent of the current population of those areas are Jewish. Like me.”
My mind flashed back to the Rossio in Lisbon and the museum wall in Belmonte which displayed a list of Jews who had been martyred during the Inquisition. Repression and pogroms had their long, dark day in Portugal, but, as always, Jews adapted, survived and today are thriving and coming out of hiding in a country that once had no place for them.
The writer is an award-winning travel journalist and the author of the upcoming book Life Is a Trip. www.Global- Adventure.us