Following is a feature story of mine from the Jerusalem Post about Capt. Arturo Barros Basto, known as the “Portuguese Dreyfus”, who attempted to ignite a mass return to Judaism some 70 years ago among descendants of Portugal’s conversos, and the legacy he left behind.
The Jerusalem Post, December 13, 2002
Portal to a Portuguese Past
Nestled along the right bank of the Douro River in northern Portugal, the city of Oporto seems an unlikely setting for one of the more intriguing, if lesser known, dramas of 20th century Jewish history.
With its wide avenues, bustling port and increasingly profitable wine industry, Oporto strikes the first-time visitor as a typical European commercial hub, one in which medieval monuments and imposing cathedrals stand within just a few blocks of modern office buildings and rows of banks and other financial institutions.
…he grew up with vague memories of his grandparents secretly lighting candles on Friday nights…
And yet, down a small, unassuming street called Rua de Guerra Junqueiro, stands a majestic synagogue called Mekor Haim (Source of Life) which, some 70 years ago, was the focal point of an extraordinary, if brief, revival of Jewish life among thousands of the regions anousim (Hebrew for “those who were coerced,” as many “Marranos” prefer to be called).
The nascent movement to return to Judaism was led by none other than a decorated Portuguese Army officer, Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto, who served his country faithfully in the First World War. And while his determined efforts to spearhead a mass return to Judaism were ultimately suppressed by the authorities, they continue to capture the imagination of Jews and non-Jews alike.
Born in a village near Oporto in 1887, Barros Basto was a descendant of anousim, and he grew up with vague memories of his grandparents secretly lighting candles on Friday nights and observing other Jewish rituals.
There does not seem to be any doubt that his grandfather knew of his family’s Jewish origins and that he transmitted this knowledge to his grandson, notes Inacio Steinhardt, Tel Aviv correspondent for the Portuguese News Agency and co-author of a 1997 biography of Barros Basto. At an early age, says Steinhardt, Barros Basto had a tendency to abhor certain facets of the Catholicism he was raised with, and to idealize a more sublime relationship with the Creator.
In 1916, while fighting on the European front, Barros Basto commanded an infantry squadron and saw action in Flanders, where he even survived a gas attack. There, according to historian Howard M. Sachar, Barros Basto had an experience that would prove to be a turning point in his life.
One Friday evening, he ambled into the tent of a French liaison officer who happened to be Jewish. When he saw the officer lighting candles, the Frenchman explained that it was a Jewish Sabbath tradition. For Barros Basto, writes Sachar in his book Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered, the dim memory of his grandparents ritual suddenly locked into focus. He returned to Portugal a changed man.
Determined to undergo formal conversion to Judaism, Barros Basto overcame numerous obstacles and made his way to Spanish Morocco, where he fulfilled his goal and returned to the faith of his ancestors under the guidance of the rabbinate in Tetuan.
With a newfound zeal, Barros Basto returned to Oporto, married a Jewish woman, and set about the task of encouraging his fellow crypto-Jews to come out of the closet and openly return to the Jewish people. He established a synagogue and started a weekly newspaper, HaLapid, in which he wrote under his Hebrew name of Abraham Ben Rosh.
Dressed in his military uniform, Barros Basto began visiting remote areas throughout northern Portugal, pleading with the anousim to embrace Judaism. He initiated a process of welcoming the crypto-Jews and their descendants back to Judaism, says Rufina Bernardetti Silva Mausenbaum, a writer and descendant of Portuguese anousim. He travelled to the villages and towns to reassure these frightened people that it was safe at last to openly practice Judaism once more of these trips were made with two medical doctors accompanying him to perform circumcisions when required.
This wave of anti-Semitism swept through Portugal as well, affecting the resurgence of Jewish life he had sparked…
As a result of these efforts, Barros Basto quickly became known as the Apostle of the “Marranos,” and within a few years his efforts began to bear fruit when the Mekor Haim synagogue in Oporto was formally dedicated. The building, which was donated by Elie Kadoorie, and built on land that had been purchased by Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris, came to serve as a kind of headquarters for Barros Bastos movement to restore the anousim to the Jewish people.
Recognizing the importance of education, Barros Basto succeeded in establishing a yeshiva on the synagogues premises, which he called Rosh Pina, Hebrew for cornerstone. The school operated for nine years, during which it trained some 90 students in subjects ranging from Hebrew to Jewish history and tradition.
All these activities, however, did not go unnoticed by the church and the authorities, neither of whom looked too kindly on Barros Bastos efforts, particularly when thousands of people began to respond to his call to return to Judaism.
Anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe during the ’30s, working against his efforts and dreams, says Mausenbaum. This wave of anti-Semitism swept through Portugal as well, affecting the resurgence of Jewish life he had sparked, which was viewed with severe criticism by the Church and the new regime headed by Antonio Salazar [the authoritarian Portuguese premier who ruled from 1932 to 1968 - MF].
In 1935, a local Oporto priest named Tomáz Correia da Luz Almeida set in motion a series of events that would ultimately lead to Barros Bastos dismissal from the army and the disintegration of the burgeoning movement he had founded.
Anxious to stem the tide of those abandoning Catholicism to return to Judaism, Almeida brought trumped up charges against Barros Basto to the police, alleging that he was a degenerate who engaged in homosexual acts with his students. The Oporto prosecutor brought charges against Barros Basto, leading the Portuguese Army to initiate court-martial proceedings against him. After dragging on for over two years, the case was finally dropped in 1937 for lack of evidence.
But, as historian Sachar puts it, the damage was done. By the mid-1930s, parents had withdrawn their children from the Rosh Pina school, and Barros Basto had become persona non grata among his once-devoted “marrano” followers. In 1943, the Portuguese Ministry of Defense, citing unspecified reasons of good and welfare, revoked Barros Bastos commission as an officer and summarily drummed him out of the service, leading historians to dub him the Portuguese Dreyfus (after the French general staff officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongly accused and convicted of treason in 1894).
The thousands of anousim whom Barros Basto had inspired to investigate their Jewish ancestry and heritage quickly got the message: it was not yet safe to return to Judaism. And then, almost as quickly as it had begun, the movement Barros Basto initiated rapidly faded away.
Climbing the stairs to the Mekor Haim synagogues top floor, I proceed down a hallway and enter the library. Lining the shelves are a variety of religious books, many of them dusty and torn, signifying both their age and the ample use to which they were once put. Impulsively, I open a cabinet on the wall, where I discover a pile of old booklets in Portuguese, carefully bound and wrapped as if awaiting distribution.
Catecismo Israelita (The Belief System of Israel), a 59-page volume, discusses the mission of the Jewish people in this world as well as various aspects of Jewish philosophy and practice. Judeus & Proselitos (Jews and Converts), explains in 45 pages the meaning of conversion and Jewish attitudes toward converts throughout the ages. Both booklets proudly bear the name of A.C. de Barros Basto on their cover, and state that they are publications of Yeshivah Rosh-Pinah, the school he worked so hard to establish.
Though the library and beit midrash are no longer in use, you can still feel and hear the students who once sat here…
Leaving the room, I proceed to the women’s balcony, which overlooks the main sanctuary where untold numbers of Portuguese anousim, undoubtedly led by Barros Basto himself, once gathered to offer prayers just as their ancestors had done before them. The interior of the synagogue is strikingly beautiful, yet the silence in the room is as piercing as it is anguished.
The synagogue may be empty, but you can feel the voices of the worshippers who once prayed here, says Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay who accompanied me on the visit. Though the library and beit midrash are no longer in use, you can still feel and hear the students who once sat here, learning Torah and grappling with the age-old question of what it means to be a Jew, he tells me.
And yet, I remain troubled. Here, for a few brief years some seven decades ago, an abrupt awakening had taken place. Thousands of Portuguese men and women whose ancestors had been coerced into adopting Christianity five hundred years ago, suddenly stepped out of hiding and sought to reclaim what had been taken from them by force. Could it be, I thought, that the Pintele Yid, the Jewish spark, had survived in Portugal for all those centuries only to come alive briefly in the 1930s and then be snuffed out in a spasm of intolerance by Barros Bastos persecutors?
No, Rufina Mausenbaum later reassured me, Barros Bastos accomplishment was not short-lived. Though he never quite succeeded in reviving the full potential of Portuguese Judaism in his time, she said, I believe he gave hope and strength and helped nurture the Jewish soul of the secret-Jewish communities of Portugal.
Today, she notes, Portugal’s young anousim look to Barros Basto as an inspiration, speaking openly and wishing for their own Ben Rosh, as he was known, to assist them in their return.
Indeed, Barros Basto biographer Inacio Steinhardt says that most of the current congregations few dozen members are people that found their Jewish roots and returned to Judaism or are in the process of returning. An ambitious effort by the synagogues dynamic Israeli-born president, Moshe Medina, he notes, aims at drawing in local anousim, welcoming them into the community and educating them about Judaism.
Medina’s brother, Marco, confirms that a rebirth, of sorts, is underway. Just recently, he relates, he was sitting at a cafe in Oporto reading a book in Hebrew. A young Portuguese man came over and asked him what language he was reading. When I told him, he got all excited because he was from the anousim, says Medina. He said to me, “I love Israel and I love the Jewish people—my people.” So I invited him to come to the synagogue, to learn more about his heritage.
I get calls every week from Portuguese “Marranos” seeking a connection with Judaism, Medina says. They want to learn more, celebrate the holidays, and become Jews. There are hundreds and hundreds of anousim in this area, and we need to reach out to them.
It seems, then, that Rufina Mausenbaum was right, after all. Decades later, Barros Basto’s efforts continue to reverberate among Oporto’s hidden Jews. His dreams and his deeds, she told me, were indestructible.
And so, it appears, is the tenacity of the Jewish soul, which, against all odds, is struggling to reemerge in places such as Oporto.
And while they may face an uphill battle, Portugal’s anousim can at least find solace in the fact that although their commanding officer, Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto, is no more, his dream and his spirit live on.
For more information on the anousim of Portugal, visit www.saudades.org