Secrets from a Forgotten Past

image: Rufina Mausenbaum

It was quite recently that I discovered I was not unique. There are many others like me with secrets hidden in a forgotten past, born out of a people who have disappeared. These secrets were nearly exposed during the 1930’s in Portugal when a light in the form of a marrano renaissance flickered and died before it could take flame. Until now, buried under the ashes of fear, humiliation and shame, it is estimated that in Brazil alone there are between 15 and 30 million, and possibly up to half of all in Portugal!

The oldest and most south-western country of Europe; her borders unchanged for 800 years; with a history full and rich with Jewish culture, history and martyrs; whose nobles and peasants alike are ‘tainted’ with jewish blood. A country where Jews dominated life and excelled in all spheres, whether commerce, academics or intelectually, (a time) when the Spanish and others complained that one could not conduct business anywhere in Europe, or the New World, unless you had a “Portuguese” partner. Portuguese being synonymous with Jewish! Portugal tried hard to become judenrein ( free of Jews) 500 years ago. A chilling prelude to what lay ahead with Nazi Germany. For me, with a Portuguese heritage this is especially poignant as my own origins, history and culture have been effectively obliterated.

…once a year she would disappear by going to the fields for a whole day and night on the Antepura (Yom Kippur)

A remnant of the vibrant Jewish past remains, in part due to a little boy in Amarante, a town outside Oporto. He was 10 years old in 1897, when his grandfather told him “we are Jews” and taught him the secret prayer said by crypto Jews (secret) on entering a church; “I come here to worship neither wood nor stone, I come only to worship you, Highest Lord, Who it is that governs us.” (from crypto Jews of Portugal by David Augusto Canelo 2nd ed. 1990)

The little boy’s name was Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, and although he was baptised and brought up as a Catholic, as many other anousim (forced to convert) retained their Judaism in their hearts. He converted to Orthodox Judaism when he was 33 years old. Many families of Portugal maintained traditions and jewish practices throughout the ages. Some with no knowledge where it originated, as with my own family who are all catholic but retain many jewish traditions that have been passed down without explanation. My grandmother, whose name I bear, was thought odd in the village where our family had gone to seek refuge and anonymity, so necessary for survival. ‘Odd,’ because once a year she would disappear by going to the fields for a whole day and night on the Antepura (Day of Atonement.)

Although Artur Carlos de Barros Basto hardly gets a mention in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, he is a hero and modern day martyr for Portuguese Judaism. He has become known as the ‘Portuguese Dreyfus’ amongst those who know his life story. He studied and qualified as an engineer, became a professional soldier, was decorated after World War I for bravery by the British and the Portuguese and promoted to Captain. A Captain who was dismissed from the army because he was a Jew. He coped with his humiliation as best he could because, unlike Dreyfus, there was no world indignation or outcry to help him vindicate himself. He fought the battle against prejudice alone.

By the end of the 19th Century, historians believed that Portugal had achieved her goal. The Inquisition, which lasted 300 years in that country had managed to rid Portugal of all her Jews. The government, thinking the forced conversions and persecutions had made 4,000 years of history, culture and religion disappear, felt it necessary to ‘invite Jews’ back into the country to try and reverse the economic decline that had culminated with being judenrein. A few came from Morocco, Tangiers and Gibraltar, being granted recognition in 1892. Permission was granted for a synagogue to be built but was not allowed to face the street. The Shaare Tikva (Gates of Hope) is easily missed behind high walls and gates within a courtyard on the Rua Alexandre Herculano, Lisboa, even today. It is against this background of religious “tolerance” that Captain de Barros Basto established a small synagogue in Oporto. He also started a weekly newspaper, writing under his hebrew name of Abraham ben Rosh while also visiting remote areas, often in full military regalia. He did this to reassure this stiffled segment of the ‘secret’ communities of the government’s acceptance of their true religion. Many of these trips were made with two medical doctors accompanying him to perform circumcisions when required. Circumcision being an integral part of Judaism was outlawed by the Inquisition and many, in fear of their lives had to forgo this ritual. This fear continued up until this period.

The synagogue in Oporto grew from one room into a beautiful building donated by Ellie Kadoorie, himself from a sephardi family (Jews from Spain and Portugal, the Iberian peninsula) with business interests in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The ‘Kadoorie’ synagogue was built on a plot donated by Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris, while in Bragança, another synagogue with its own rabbi was started, called ‘Gates of Redemption.’

The captain, married with a family at this stage, established a yeshiva (religious school) in Oporto, which in the 9 years of existence managed to educate 90 students in Hebrew, French, Portuguese, Jewish religious history and studies. These activities did not go unnoticed by Salazar, believed to be of Jewish heritage himself, and his government who were not impressed with the situation. An estimated 10,000 families across Portugal, previously professing to be Catholic, were now admitting to having lived secret or double lives up to then, and were in fact secret Jews. Trumped up charges were brought against the Captain and within 24 hours he was court-martialed, stripped of his rank and ordered to close the yeshiva. He was devastated but remained a devoutly religious man, often praying alone in the Kadoorie synagogue, until his death in 1961.

It is with pride that I remember my grandmother Rufina, and others like her, who in spite of the danger to their lives managed to keep their faith alive.

The marrano renaissance, still in its infancy, died when once more fear was ignited amongst the Jews of Portugal. The fragile communities remembered that not so long ago, until well into the 19th century, you could be burned alive at the auto-da-fe (Act of Faith) on the mere suspicion of practising Judaism. With the advance of Nazism and with it, antisemitism, they could probably visualise once more looking at a map of Portugal, the three main centres of the Inquisition forming the ‘heart’ of the country: Lisbon, Coimbra, Evora. The heart that destroyed her own children and could easily have done so again.

Yet, the miracle of Portuguese Judaism continues, especially in the community of Belmonte, a town in northeast Portugal. Previously known as crypto(secret) Jews, they have recently, in December 1996, proudly rejoined mainstream Orthodox Judaism. After 500 years of secrecy and fear. Living and hiding in this charming town high in the Sierra da Estrela (Mountain of Stars) they managed with faith and perseverance to maintain their religion. As often stated, they were Jews in all but name and Christians in nothing but form. Sons of this community had attended the yeshiva of Captain de Barros Basto in the 1930’s

It is with pride that I remember my grandmother Rufina, and others like her, who in spite of the danger to their lives managed to keep their faith alive. How pleased she would have been had she known her humiliation had not been in vain, that today, many years later her granddaughter observes the Antepura (Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur) openly as a Jewess with Portuguese heritage. Although I too was baptised in the Catholic Church, I, like Captain de Barros Basto converted back to the religion of my forefathers, Orthodox Judaism. Often when listening to the Portuguese fado (folk music), the haunting soulfulness reminds me of a people forgotten, and my saudade (nostalgic longing) for the past continues.


  1. Captain Barros was buried in Amarante, near his grandfather. The State of Israel offered to bury him in an honoured spot alongside other great figures in Jewish history, but he had left instructions, he wanted to be near his loved ones.
  2. A special thanks to my hero, Mario Soares, President of Portugal, who made a public apology to the Jewish community of Portugal on 17th March 1989 for the horror and tragedy of the past. He linked the decline of Portugal directly to the ‘expulsion’ of the country’s Jewish citizens. (The expulsion in Portugal never took place. Instead the citizens were converted and baptised en masse and by force). Although we cannot forget or change the past, there is hope for a future together, for the people who share the noble lineage of King David, once more.