A Grave for Maria

A Baltimorean writes about searching for a remnant of Jewish life in Mexico City.

A Pikesville resident and Holocaust survivor, Max Amichai Heppner is vice-president of the Baltimore chapter of Kulanu, a Jewish organization dedicated to finding and assisting lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people.

Mexico City, October 4, 2002

The sad fate of the “Marranos” has long been mourned in Jewish circles. We well know the heart-wrenching history of Jews from Spain and Portugal who suffered under the Inquisition for centuries. But it has come as a touching surprise that Marrano-Jewish customs and observances, long maintained underground, are resurfacing.

By “resurfacing” I don’t mean that “Marranos” now are easy to find. I had to look for a lead before I was able to find a group I had heard lived in Mexico City. I found that lead by consulting with the president of Beth El, an English-language, Conservative congregation in that city.

I met the president, Peter Koenigsberger, at a Sabbath-eve service. He had arrived at services quite late. The reason, he explained later, was a problem that involved the very group I was looking for. It’s name is Kahal Kadosh Bene Elohim, or Holy Community of Sons of Israel.

The problem faced by the community was that the wife of its leader, Dr. Benjamin Laureano, had died that morning, and they had trouble finding a place to bury her. The mainstream Sephardic community in town refused them a plot, alleging there was no proof Maria was Jewish.

When Benjamin couldn’t get that decision overruled, he went for help to Beth Israel, which has burial rights in an Ashkenazic cemetery. Peter contacted the people in charge there, but they were all out of town.

I eagerly asked to go along when Peter said he planned to visit Benjamin to get information to better resolve the impasse. Peter agreed, and he promised to pick me up at my hotel the next afternoon.

It took us about 40 minutes to reach the Portales neighborhood where Benjamin lives in a big, old, white house. Once inside, we were shown chairs in Benjamin’s office so we could sit away from the crowd of well-wishers that was gathered in the living room.

Benjamin is 75, still active as a journalist and a human-rights activist. Unshaven and haggard from his ordeal, he nonetheless looked at least 10 years younger. He is round of face and has a stocky build, with mixed Indian and European characteristics. He immediately wanted to establish his bona fides.

“My ancestors came from Spain in the 1500’s to escape the Inquisition,” he began. “On arriving in Mexico, they heard that the North Country was more tolerant of Jews. So my family settled in among the Indians there. My ancestor built a well-camouflaged house of worship, appointed himself as rabbi, and set out to garner himself a congregation. He was familiar with Sephardic prayers and an avid Talmudist.”

“My own father also was a rabbi, greatly beloved by his congregation, which already had come above ground. I want to emphasize that not one of my ancestors in the generations between the first settlement and our own day ever accepted Christianity.”

Benjamin paused there. He opened a desk drawer and out came the reproduction of a document from 1540 issued by the Office of the Inquisition. It accuses a certain Mr. Baeza, leader of a group of Indians, of protecting a congregation of Sephardic Jews. “That’s us,” Benjamin said, looking up from his files, straight into our eyes. “What more proof do you need to show were for real?”

“Look,” Peter said to Benjamin, “No one questions that you, yourself are Jewish. Everyone admires the courage of your ancestors. It’s your wife whose background raises questions.”

“I know,” Benjamin answered. “But why? From the day Maria and I met, she was a member, first of my father’s congregation, then of mine; here in Mexico City. Here! Look! I can prove it to you.”

He reached into his file drawer for a folder bulging with photos of his congregation. He randomly selected one and said: “Look, here you can see Maria happily celebrating our daughter’s bat mitzvah with our Jewish friends. Now she’s dead, and suddenly, she’s not Jewish?”

We asked why the returned “Marranos,” with their basically Sephardic practice, hadn’t long ago joined with the mainstream Sephardim, if only to get a share in their cemetery.

“We maintained Sephardic practice in this society for more than 400 years,” Benjamin said indignantly. “We are the true original Jews of Mexico. Why should we join them? They should join us!”

Peter recognized the interview had reached a dead end. “I promise you, Benjamin,” he said, “I’ll do all I can to help. In fact, I already have been on the phone looking for ideas.”

“I know all about phone calls that lead nowhere,” Benjamin answered bitterly. “I must have handled a hundred calls today. And this is Shabbat and I have a house full of company I’m ignoring.” He shook his head.

We were exhausted. We had come for a half-hour condolence call. Now, night was falling. It was time to take a rest for now.

I managed to get a call through to Peter’s busy phone about 10 o’clock that Sunday morning. Peter quickly told me what had happened meanwhile. “All night long,” he said, “Benjamin’s friends fanned out across the community to get affidavits affirming Maria’s active participation in Jewish communal and religious life. Even the signatures of at least 18 highly influential people, however, couldn’t turn the tide.”

“Amichai,” Peter said, “obviously, Jewish burial just isn’t in the cards. So here’s a solution, suggested by a rabbi who knows conditions here. Maria should be buried immediately in the non-sectarian cemetery, the Memorial Gardens [Jardines del Recuerdo] in the northern suburbs of Mexico City. Later, she could be moved to a Jewish cemetery if we wall off a special section for supportive non-Jews. This idea has been used even in Israel, and burial there is a sign of deep respect by the Jewish community”

About noon, Benjamin realized that he had no choice but to accept this solution. But he hated it.

“Amichai,” he bitterly said to me later, “to me, a wall inside a cemetery is just extending apartheid to the dead. And to consider Jardines del Recuerdo a non-sectarian cemetery is a wry joke. A 15-foot cross overshadows it, and as we said graveside prayers, the shadow of that cross crept over the grave. It tore at my soul.”

Benjamin had to act because his community was getting despondent. However, once the decision to bury Maria at the Jardines was made, everyone jumped into action, and by 3 p.m., Maria’s casket arrived at the grave site amid a crowd of mourners estimated at some 250 souls.

The people there, whose lives had been touched by Maria, were deeply sad. She had died so young; she was only 55. And now, they all had to miss her love and, in addition; deal with the emotions of a derailed funeral. I heard that the head of the interfaith committee of Mexico City gave a stirring funeral oration. I am sorry not to have been there. I heard about it too late.

Peter turned pensive in reviewing this outcome. “I’m sorry we couldn’t solve Benjamin’s dilemma the way he wanted,” he said. “Too many people would have been upset if we had abruptly changed the burial rules for our cemetery. Change takes time. However, the fantastic way the community pulled together may motivate all of us to achieve more unity. You and Kulanu can help this process along. This way, something truly beneficial can come out of the controversy over Maria’s grave.”