On September 8 2005 the impressive Kadoorie synagogue (Mekor H’aim-fountain of life)
in Porto, Portugal came alive with singing and dancing on the occasion of the dedication
of a sefer torah donated by a rabbi whose grandfather was saved from the nazis by
the then fledging anusim community founded by Captain Barros Basto in 1923. The “Catedral
Judaica do norte de Portugal,” as it has been called, is a majestic art deco three-story
building in a leafy, upscale Porto neighborhood, which took nine years to build (1929
–1938). It was the vision of a romantic hero, Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto
(aka Abraham Israel Ben-Rosh), often referred to as the “Apostle of the Marranos”
or the Marrano Moses but also the “Portuguese Dreyfus.” He died a broken man in
Barros Basto dreamed of gathering the anusim of Northern Portugal and creating a
large active community in Porto. At its peak, he may have had 10,000 adherents. He
founded a publication called Halapid to rally anusim and help them learn about the
religion of their ancestors. Barros Basto endured arduous trips to the countryside
to meet and organize anusim, he begged for money and support from co-religionists
in London, Amsterdam, New York, Paris and elsewhere, he established a yeshiva, he
tried to recruit a rabbi, he founded and published a newsletter Halapid, he conducted
historical research, he organized conferences, and he resisted attacks by the Catholic
Church and a fascist state and their accomplices. He suffered many indignities and
injustices. Following his death in 1961, he was buried, not in a Jewish cemetery
(there is none in Porto and he did not want to be buried in Lisbon), but in Amarante,
his place of birth, near Porto. The magnificent temple that he had built, with the
help of the Jewish Community of London, fell into disrepair, its imposing doors closed
to the curious. He seemed to have failed.
On September 8 of this year, everything appeared to be changed. The presence of grand
Sephardic rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Moshe Amar, signaled a new phase of Barros Basto’s
work. The doors of the “cathedral” of the north were once again thrown open, welcoming
a new wave of anousim who had dreamed of entering those doors for years; and come
they did, philosophers, doctors, poets, professors, professionals, artists and youth.
Some are religious, others are secular, but all are curious and excited about their
new journey of discovery and learning. Together, with the understanding of a sympathetic
orthodox rabbi, Elisha Salas, provided by Amishav, an Israeli organization, they
are embarking on the experience of a lifetime; Hebrew, Torah and Talmudic studies,
as well as services at the synagogue. Soon, I expect to see tours of historical
Jewish Porto, academic conferences on such great philosophers as Uriel Acosta (born
in Porto, often cited as the forefather of Baruch Spinoza), cultural events, theatre
and film programs and an ever-expanding community of diverse anusim discovering their
roots through all the variations of Judaism.
Although Barros Basto’s tireless work to form a normative Jewish community from the
remnants of 500 years of oppression and the fires of the inquisition failed, his
efforts are not forgotten by today’s anusim. Perhaps his daughter’s dream of justice
for her father will someday be realized.
Also in early September, Hanamel and Hahaber, anusim cultural organizations from
Porto and Lisbon, respectively, called a conference for anusim in Tomar. A report
on that conference and events since then will appear in the Sprng issue of HaLapid.
Manuel A. Lopes Azevedo, who refers to himself as “a lapsed lawyer,” was born in
the Azores, lives in Vancouver and sojourns in Porto. He is the founding president
of the Portuguese Benevolent Society which publishes Lusitania.ca, a trilingual zine.
He is a student of Sefardic history and a member of SCJS.
Few people ever knew, but the medieval alleys of the Portuguese city of Porto on
the Atlantic coast once provided cover for a persecuted minority at risk of being
burnt at the stake.
In the 16th century, a thick-walled granite house that still stands in a row of narrow
buildings along a cobbled street held a dangerous secret. At the back, steep steps
lead down to a warren of alleys ideal for conspiratorial comings and goings that
helped keep an outlawed religious ceremony hidden.
Four centuries later, the secret of the synagogue is out. The mystery began unravelling
when Fr Agostinho Jardim Moreira, a Catholic priest, bought the four-storey house
for use as an old people's home for his parish. When construction workers told him
they had come across a false wall, he told them to pull it down - sensing a hidden
He had studied the city's Jewish history and knew his parish had been a Jewish quarter
in the 15th and 16th centuries. He also knew that, after they were forced to convert
to Catholicism in 1496, many Jews privately kept their faith and worshipped in secret.
"I suspected that false wall was hiding something," said Fr Moreira. "I knew there
had to be some kind of Jewish symbol behind it."
A worker's sledgehammer proved his hunch right. Beyond the wall was a room with a
medieval holy ark - a nook in the wall of a synagogue where Torah scrolls are kept.
Only two other arks from the period have been found in Portugal.
The Inquisition in Porto
By Manuel Lopes Azevedo
There has been very little published about the Inquisition in Porto. This is a short
summary of two articles on the subject, one by Amilcar Paulo (a protégé of Barros
Basto), A Inquisição no Porto, Achegas para a sua Historia, Separata de Douro Litoral-Boletim
da Comissão de Etnografia e Historia-None Serie-Vol II, Porto, 1959, and Elvira Cunha
De Azevedo Mea, A Inquisição do Porto, Separata da ‘Revista de Historia’ Vol I, Centro
de Historia Da Universidade Do Porto, 1979, Porto. Professor Mea is presently writing
a book about the Inquisition in Porto.
According to Amilcar Paulo (deceased) on June 30, 1541 king John III ordered the
Carmelite bishop, Baltazar Limpo, bishop of Porto to institute the Tribunal of the
(un)Holy Office of the Inquisition. On February 11, 1543, the Tribunal held the first
and only auto de fé. Three scaffolds were constructed. There were 84 penitents, of
which 21 were burned in effigy, 3 women and 5 men were burned alive, 4 padeceram,
15 were sentenced to perpetual jail with sabenito and 43 received prison sentences
between 1 and 10 years. The auto lasted until 5 pm, with 30,000 people in attendance.
The Tribunal was extinguished in Porto in 1544. Paulo reproduces several historical
documents such as the edict of king John III establishing the inquisition.
Professor Mea, who knew Almilcar Paulo, is much more circumspect. She notes that
not much has been added about the Inquisition in Porto since Alexandre Herculano’s
classic , History of the origin and establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal
(1854). She does not give much importance to Herculano’s opinion that the Inquisition
in Porto was motivated by vengeance of the Inquisitor, bishop D. Baltazar Limpo whom
he describes as impetuous, obstinate, and fanatical. According to Herculano, the
bishop was angry with the New Christians for not paying the cost of converting the
synagogue to a church and the re-paving of Rua de São Miguel in the former Olival
Apparently there were a great number of New Christians living in the Ribeira neighbourhood
(the then docklands), selling ready-made clothes who complained of exorbitant rents.
In 1533 and 1534 they made a proposal to the City to return to the place of their
ancestors, the Olival Judiaria, and promised to contribute towards the construction
of a church, (the present church of "Our Lady of Victory" on Saõ Bento da Vitoria
street is believed to be the site of the former synagogue of the Olival Jewish quarter)
and the re-pavement the street of São Miguel, where Uriel Acosta (Gabriel da Costa)
was born. As of 1547, there still had not been an agreement. By that time bishop
Limpo was no longer in Portugal.
Mea, who writes twenty years after Amilcar Paulo, prefers to start anew, relying
on five packets of documents then recently discovered at the Torre de Tombo, the
national archive. Her partial analysis of the documents, which were in poor condition,
indicates that cases before the Tribunal occurred between 1541 and 1546, with the
greatest concentration was in 1542-1544. There is also mention of a visit by the
bishop of Porto to Mesão Frio (up the Douro river) in 1542. Mea examined one document
in which 56 witnesses were heard in one day resulting in the denunciation of 30 New
Christians. Evidence also revealed that a good number (26) of the incriminated were
absent, many for more than a year, some having fled to Lisbon and Lamego before leaving
Mea finds cases from Porto mistakenly listed in the Coimbra Inventory of Inquisition
cases (Inventario dos Processos da Inquisiçao de Coimbra,1541-46). There she finds
78 cases from Porto, some involving more than one accused. Analyzing additional sources,
she found a total of 111 processes from Porto, some duplicated. Mea studied 54 cases
referring to 93 individuals. Some files are incomplete.
The tribunal was situated at the pousadas (manor house) of the inquisitor Jorge Rodrigues
on Rua Chã. The prisoners were lodged in the bishop’s prison but in 1544 there is
evidence of a new prison on Rua Escura. In one of the later processes (1545-47) of
Leonor Gomes and João Serrão, merchants, we learn that the vicar, João Ferreira had
replaced the bishop.
The professor states that it is not possible to fully analyze the nature of the inquisition
in Porto as the institution was in its infancy and there was a lack of general applicable
rules throughout the realm, rather it depended a lot on the character of the individual
inquisitors. In Porto, one of the Inquisitors suspected anyone whose parents were
forcibly baptized or who lived with a New Christian, like Violante Dias and her husband
Antonio Dias, imprisoned for two years. Another example is Genebra Gomes, a widow
of 80 years, born on Rua de São Miguel, baptized as an adult in 1497 and who spoke
Hebrew. Her case stands out because she prayed frequently in Hebrew and observed
Pessach and Yom Kippur.
Mea notes that the absence of 26 accused and an additional 7 whose whereabouts were
unknown, is evidence of the economic power of Porto’s New Christians and their ability
to easily escape the clutches of the Inquisition. Their economic power may also explain
the rigid and inflexible attitude of many of the accused and witnesses who were uncooperative
and refused to corroborate with incriminating evidence. Some witnesses were imprisoned,
like Leonor and Eva Gomes, aunt and niece of Genebra (who also spent two years in
prison) for interfering with witnesses. There were many appeals by accused persons
and many allegations of illegality on part of the Tribunal, such as not releasing
prisoners once their cases were completed.
Pursuant to the documents Mea studied, there were at least two auto de fés in Porto,
one on February 11, 1543 at the field near the gate of the Olival and another at
the same place on April 27, 1547. The Tribunal in Porto ended with the papal bull
of Paul III on July 16, 1547. It was never re-instated, cases from Porto were dealt
with by the Inquisition tribunal of Coimbra.
Today, on November 12, 1938, the Nazi SS leader of the allegedly highly cultured
Germany and Austria announced that on November 9, 1938 (the Night of broken Glass
or Kristallnaght), 267 synagogues were burned, 177 them totally destroyed. Seven
thousand Jewish businesses were destroyed.
Meanwhile, in then poor humble Portugal, in the same year, 1938, captain Barros Basto,
the "Apostle of the Marranos" put the finishing touches on the "Cathedral of the
North", the Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, which he had started building
in 1929. Kadoorie is the family name of Sir Ellie Kadoorie of Hong Kong who contributed
the last 5,000.00 pounds necessary to finish the synagogue. It is the only synagogue
ever built in Portugal for Marranos. It is the only new synagogue built in Europe
in 1938 and the only synagogue built in the world in the 20th century for Marranos.
The captain was persecuted by Salazar`s new state and the its accomplice, the Catholic
Church which built an even bigger temple just up the road in the same art deco style
as the synagogue. Although Captain Barros Basto`s dream fell into disrepair, today,
his spirit lives on with a new generation of Marranos intent on rescuing Portugal`s
Jewish common heritage. We shall not forget.
After corroboration by historians, the Portuguese Institute of Architectural Heritage
authenticated the house last month as the site of a secret synagogue.
The chance discovery solved an enigma that had baffled historians for years, said
Elvira Mea, a lecturer who specialises in Jewish history at the University of Porto.
Immanuel Aboab, a 16th-century Jewish scholar, had written that, as a child, he had
visited a synagogue in the third house along the street counting from the 14th-century
Our Lady of Victory church.
But he didn't specify which side of the street, and archaeological digs had turned
up nothing. Then came confirmation of the accuracy of Aboab's text: the house Fr
Moreira bought was the third house down on the street the Jewish scholar had described.
Historians had been thrown off by the fact that Aboab never described the synagogue
as clandestine. His childhood experiences took place five decades after the forced
conversion - at a time when secret Jewish worshippers would be tortured and burnt
at the stake if caught - so there was no chance a synagogue could function in the
"Everyone assumed Aboab had got his dates mixed up," said Professor Mea. "But it
had been preying on my mind and, as soon as I saw the ark, all the pieces fell into