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Jewish missionary activity in Portugal between the wars

Edgar Samuel

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 41, 2007 Jewish missionary activity in Portugal between the Wars EDGAR SAMUEL Between 1925 and 1938 an attempt was made to convert the Anusim or secret Jews of Portugal to open Judaism, by establishing Jewish missions in Portugal. The man who initiated this movement was my late father, Wilfred S. Samuel. He had joined the London Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation and become an enthusiastic student of its early history. In 1924 he published a monograph, his first, on 'The First London Synagogue of the Resettlement',1 which was built in 1657 by Antonio Fernandes Carvajal (or Carvalhal) from Fund?o in Portugal. In August 1924 Wilfred Samuel read a news item in the Jewish Chronicle reporting that Jacob Meir, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem, had received an enquiry from some Portuguese Marranos who wanted to convert to open Judaism. He therefore wrote to Albert Hyamson, an official in the British Mandatory Government in Jerusalem, and asked him if he could get a copy of the letter. At this time Wilfred Samuel was an unmar? ried war veteran aged 38 and export director and partner in the family busi? ness of gramophone manufacturers and wholesalers of musical instruments. Hyamson procured copies of the correspondence which showed the facts to be, unsurprisingly perhaps, very different from the journalists' report. The President of the Lisbon synagogue had written an interesting letter to the Rishon le Tsion in excellent French.2 In English translation it reads as follows: Dear Chief Rabbi, I am writing on behalf of my Committee to ask the benefit of your wise advice on a most interesting subject, which will certainly not fail to interest you too. You know that at the time of the expulsion from Portugal in the sixteenth century of the Common Era many of our brothers in religion were converted to Christianity to escape the terrible persecution of the Inquisition and of its autos da fe. Their conversion, however, was no 1 Trans JHSE X (1924) 1-147. 2 See Appendix I for the original text. 173</page><page sequence="2">Edgar Samuel more than in appearance, for they kept in their hearts their love and devotion to our religion, and many descendants of these unfortunates, living in certain districts in Portugal, still today keep a very live senti? ment for the faith of their ancestors. Although they are baptized and their marriages are celebrated by the rites of the Catholic Church and they are buried as followers of that religion, they believe themselves, in spite of this, to be true Jews. In general these people belong to the peasant or petit-bourgeois class, not counting among them large traders or industrialists, but there are some doctors and lawyers etc. Basically they believe themselves all to be Jews. They know, after certain phases of the moon, the day of Great Pardon [Yom Kippur\ which they keep rigorously, saying certain prayers transmitted to them by their ancestors and which include some Hebrew words whose meaning they do not know but which they repeat with fervour. They often speak of the return to Jerusalem and, as they have become very ignorant of our religion, they are amazed when one of our coreligionists by chance, explains some religious cere? monies. In truth they regard themselves as perfectly Jewish and it seems useless to try to change their ways, so strong is their tradition of race and manner of life. One of our coreligionists, however, after several years drawn by his commercial interests, often visits these people, who did not disclose their secret until after much time and effort on the part of our coreli? gionist. It seems that some of them, who today live under a regime of perfect liberty, would truly like to return to Judaism and have their children circumcised. We do not allow our Mo he I to do circumcisions without our permission and it is clear that none of these New Christian or Marranos, as they are called, would be able to circumcise a child without our permission. What should our attitude be, Chief Rabbi, if they approach us? They certainly have our sympathy and their case seems most interesting to us, but ought we introduce newly to Judaism people living in villages remote from Jewish culture; people possibly later destined to abandon the precepts of our religion through indiffer? ence or interest? I also draw to your attention the circumstances of Portugal. Today it is very liberal, but it has been very intolerant and could become so again, because the clerical party is still very lively and perhaps only asleep for the present. It is also necessary to say that anti-Semitism is almost non-existent in Portugal, but it could revive if we engage in proselytizing or seem to be proselytizing. I submit all of these consid? erations to your wisdom and enlightened intelligence so that your noble Jewish sentiments can guide us and show us the path to follow... 174</page><page sequence="3">Jewish missionary activity in Portugal between the Wars Chief Rabbi Jacob Meir responded as follows:3 Marranos (converted by force) are regarded as Jews and your commu? nity ought to comply with their request to circumcise their children without fear that they could in future reject their conversion from want of religious feelings or out of habit. This was a clear and impressive ruling. But the political programme suggested was less impressive: Concerning the fear that you express in your letter that a mass conver? sion of the Marranos might cause wrong to your community in reviv? ing anti-Semitic feelings among Christians. We believe that should this occur you ought to enter into negotiations with the immigration organizations, the Jewish Colonization Association in Paris; the Joint Distribution committee, New York; the Zionist executive, Jerusalem so that they could possibly cause the Marranos to emigrate to Palestine. We should be happy to help you in these attempts. Perhaps you would be good enough to write to us with exact details on their moral and financial situation and the number of Marranos, who would be willing to immigrate. In 1925, Samuel Schwarz, the Polish Jewish mining engineer who had discovered the secret Jewish community in Belmonte, published a book entitled Os Christ?os Novos em Portugal no Seculo Vinte ('The New Christians in Twentieth-century Portugal') which created a sensation both in Portugal and abroad. Wilfred Samuel decided that something ought to be done to reconvert the Portuguese secret Jews to mainstream Judaism, and approached Laurie Magnus, the Editor of The Jewish Guardian. He proposed to Magnus that The Anglo-Jewish Association send their secretary, Lucien Wolf, to Portugal to investigate the problem and to report on what action should be taken, and offered to pay for the trip on condition that his donation be kept anonymous. Lucien Wolf, then aged sixty-eight and a senior communal official, was a journalist by training, a keen amateur histo? rian and a founder of the Jewish Historical Society of England. He also spoke excellent French and was very familiar with diplomatic procedure. He enrolled the support of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and went to Portugal on its behalf, as well as on that of the Anglo-Jewish Association. His first step was to seek interviews with the Prime Minister and President of Portugal and to explain to them exactly what he intended to do. Lucien Wolfs report has been published in his book of essays.4 He recommended that Jewish missionary activities should be run not from 3 See Appendix II for the original text. 4 Lucien Wolf, Essays in Jewish History (London 1934) 363-82. 175</page><page sequence="4">Edgar Samuel Lisbon, which was far from the secret Jewish communities in the northern border towns of Bragan^a, Lagoaca, and Vilarinho dos Galegos, as well as from Belmonte, but from Oporto and that they should be managed by Captain Arthur Carlos Barros Basto, a Portuguese army officer who had converted to Judaism and was governor of the military prison there. This was done, but the proposal contained the seeds of its own destruction, because it was out of the control of the only major Jewish organization in Portugal, the Jewish Community of Lisbon. Barros Basto had fully converted from Catholicism to Judaism in order to marry a lady from a wealthy Lisbon Jewish family. Before coming to Judaism he had taken up socialism, theosophy, freemasonry and anthropos ophy, and had been attracted to Islam and read the Koran. His interest in Judaism was aroused by reading Camilo Castelo Branco's novel, A Caveira da Martyr, which described the persecution of New Christians in Portugal at the time of the Inquisition.5 After converting to Judaism he claimed to come from a Crypto-Jewish family,but it now seems that this claim was unfounded, except that, like all Portuguese, he had some Jewish ancestry. He claimed in the genealogy of his family which he published that his mother and paternal grandmother had convinced Christians, but claimed that his paternal grandfather, who had died when he was ten, had taught him Judaism. This seems to have been one of the romantic afterthoughts with which his genealogy is full.6 Wolf argued that since Barros Basto was himself a Marrano, he was the best man to approach other crypto-Jews, but although he was indeed Portuguese and a full convert to Judaism, he did not come from a crypto-Jewish background in which Sabbath, Passover and Yom Kippur were kept and in which it was usual to avoid intermarriage with Old Christians. Crypto-Jews therefore viewed him with suspicion and mistrust. A small number of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants, and later others from Germany, nevertheless joined him to found a small syna? gogue in Oporto. In London, Wilfred Samuel set about fundraising to set up a Jewish Mission in Oporto. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation estab? lished a joint committee with the Anglo-Jewish Association and Alliance Israelite Universelle called the Portuguese Marranos Committee to collect funds and implement Lucien Wolfs recommendations. This enlisted the support of other Jewish communities in Europe and America. By 1927 fundraising was well under way and substantial sums were collected, including promises of a regular annual income. A similar committee was founded in the Netherlands. 5 H. P. Salamon, 'The Captain, the Abade and 20th century "Marranism" in Portugal', Arquivos do Centro Cultural Portugues X (1976) 634 n. 11. 6 Arthur Carlos Barros Basto, Linhagem de Arthur Ben-Rosh (Oporto 1920). 176</page><page sequence="5">Jewish missionary activity in Portugal between the Wars In Braganga in 1925 a local priest, Father Francisco Manuel Alves, Abade de Bagal, stimulated by his friendship with a local crypto-Jew, Jose Antonio Furtado de Montanha, published an account of Judaism in the Braganga district and listed every local man and woman sentenced by the Inquisition for Judaizing.7 His attitude was friendly to Judaism and he encouraged his friend to profess his religion openly. In 1927 Captain Barros Basto went up to Braganga with a surgeon, and Montanha and four other leading citizens of Braganga were circumcised.8 Premises were taken for a service and the visitors from Oporto publicly recited Jewish prayers there. The Kadoorie family of Hong Kong and Shanghai were persuaded to pay for building an impressive synagogue in Oporto, of which Barros Basto was made President. Torah scrolls from the defunct synagogue in Barbados were sent from London to Oporto. Barros Basto started a Jewish periodical in Portuguese called Ha-Lapid, which appeared frequently and was sent to each organization funding the movement In 1929 a boys' boarding school named Rosh Pinah was founded in Oporto to teach Judaism to youngsters from crypto-Jewish families. Of the five boys enrolled in the School, three were from Belmonte, one from Vilarinho dos Gallegos and one from Penamacor. In 1930 these were joined by one from Belmonte, one from Vilarinho dos Gallegos, one from Coimbra and two from Braganga.9 Thereafter it expanded rapidly. Cecil Roth published a pamphlet in praise of Barros Basto entitled UApotre des Marranes to elicit French support for the movement.10 In 1933 a number of German Jewish refugees arrived in Oporto, includ? ing Leon Cassuto and his son Alfonso who came from the Hamburg Sephardi community and were strongly committed Jews descended from Portuguese Jewish families. Alfonso was engaged as a teacher at the Rosh Pinah School. In 1935 a boy reported that Barros Basto had sexually abused him, a charge repeated by two other boys, and one of the other teachers went to the Police. The school was closed down and the boys were sent home, after which a military court tried Barros Basto, dismissed him from his post and discharged him from the army. The police decided not to pros? ecute the matter further, but from then on Barros Basto was dependant on his wife's private income and on such money as he could collect as a paid Jewish missionary. He and his wife insisted that he was innocent, had said that the accusation of sodomy was a calumny motivated by the jealousy and 7 Francisco Manuel Alves, Reitor de Bacal, Memorias Arqueologico-Historicas do Distrito de Bragang a Osjudeus no distrito de Braganca (Braganca 1925). 8 H. P Salamon (see n. 6) 636. 9 List of pupils at the Rosh Pinah School in Oporto in Marranos in Portugal - Survey by the Portuguese Marranos Committee London 1Q26 to igj8 (London 1939) 19-21. 10 Cecil Roth, UAp?tre des Marranes (Paris 1930). 177</page><page sequence="6">Edgar Samuel spite of the Catholic Church. The Cassutos were convinced of Barros Bastos guilt, however, and resigned from the Oporto synagogue. Paul Goodman, the secretary of the London Sephardi Community and of the London Portuguese Marranos Committee, went out to Oporto to investi? gate and concluded that Barros Basto was innocent and should be supported in the future as in the past. But Wilfred Samuel did not agree, arguing that the Cassutos were respectable committed Jews who would never have invented such a calumny. He resigned from the Portuguese Marranos Committee and switched his activities to helping refugees from Germany, increasingly the top priority for Jewish fundraising in the 1930s. The Portuguese Marranos Committee continued in a desultory way, Barros Basto renting a crowd of Portuguese Catholics to fill the synagogue for a Sabbath service whenever a delegation of supporters arrived from Amsterdam, New York or Philadelphia, and continuing to publish Ha Lapid. The Dutch Marranos Committee hired a Moroccan rabbi to serve the Braganca community, but eventually withdrew their support, and the Braganca synagogue closed before the Second World War and the annihila? tion of the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish Community. The synagogue in Oporto also became badly neglected and by 1950 was hardly used. Barros Basto died in 1961. In 1966 Professor Anita Novinsky of Sao Paolo visited Belmonte and got to know the members of the crypto-Jewish community there, finding that they were using Samuel Schwarz's study of their community as a prayer book, since it contained such a good collection of traditional Portuguese Jewish prayers. She reported on their religious practices in an article in Commentary}1 In the 1980s a Jewish filmmaker made a video of the Passover preparations in Belmonte and interviewed the local Catholic priest about the crypto-Jewish community there, members of which were morti? fied when their secret ceremonies were shown on Portuguese television. But the film had the effect of breaking down the tradition of secrecy. The priest took the view that he would rather have them practising Judaism than attending his Church as disaffected pretend Christians. In 1990, stimulated by one of their young men who had spent time in Israel, the community of Belmonte decided to convert fully to open Judaism. The men were circum? cised, the Jewish Agency sent them a rabbi and a synagogue has been built. But the changes of practice have brought about many new problems. 11 'The Last Marranos', Commentary 43, No. 5 (New York 1967) 76-81. i78</page><page sequence="7">Jewish missionary activity in Portugal between the Wars Appendix I Letter from the President of the Lisbon synagogue to Chief Rabbi Jacob Meir12 COPIE Comite da Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa 117 Rua Alexandre Herculano 23 Sivan de 5684 25 Junho de 1924 Monsieur le Grand Rabbin Jacob Meir, Grand Rabbin de la Palestine et President du Conseil Rabbinique JERUSALEM Monsieur le Grand Rabbin, Je viens vous demander encore une fois, au nom de notre Comite, de vouloir bien nous eclairer de vos sages conseils sur un sujet que nous trouvons tres interessant et que certainement ne manquera pas de vous interesser aussi. Vous savez qu'au moment de Pexpulsion de Portugal, au XVIe siecle de l'ere vulgaire, de nos anciens freres en religion beaucoup d'eux se sont convertis au christianisme pour echapper aux poursuites terribles de PInquisition et des 'autos da fe. Leur conversion cependant n'etait qu'appar ente car ils gardaient au fond du coeur leur amour et devoument pour notre religion et beaucoup de descendants de ces infortunes, vivant dans certaines regions du Portugal, conservent encore aujourd'hui un sentiment tres vif pour la foi de leurs ancetres. Quoiqu'ils soient baptizes, que leur marriages soient celebres selon les rites de la religion catholique et qu'ils soient interres comme adeptes de cette religion, ils croient nonobstant de vrais Juifs. En general ces gens appartiennent a des classes paysannes ou a une petite bourgeoisie, ne comp tant pas entre eux beaucoup de gros commercants ou industriels, quoiqu'il y en ait quelques medecins, avocats etc. Au fond ils se croient tous Juifs et savant encore aujourd'hui, d'apres certaines phases lunaires, quel est le jour du Grand Pardon (Yom-Kipur) qu'ils gardent rigoureusement; disent certaines prieres, qui leur ont ete transmises par leurs ancetres et ou on a de la peine a reconnaitre des paroles hebraiques estropiees, dont ils ne connais sent pas le sens et que cependant ils repetent avec ferveur. Ils parlent 12 Copy in W. S. Samuel's papers in the author's possession. The typed copy has numerous incorrect accents. 179</page><page sequence="8">Edgar Samuel souvent d'un retour a Jerusalem et comme ils sont devenus tres ignorant de notre religion ils s'etonnent beaucoup lorsque par hazard un de nos correli gionnaires leur explique quelques ceremonies religieuses. A vrai dire ils se croient parfaitement Juifs13 ... eur semble qu'il est inutile d'ajouter rien a ce .. .nt, tellement la tradition de leur race et de leur (?foi) ... vive chez eux. Un de nos correligionnaires, cependant, depuis quelques annees, attire par des interest de son commerce, a beaucoup frequent ces gens, qui n'ont pas delivre leur secret qu'au bout de beaucoup de temps et d'efforts de la part de notre correligionnaire et il parait que quelques-uns, aujourd'hui qu'on vit dans un regime de parfaite liberte, voudraient retourner vraiment au Judaisme en faisant circoncire leurs enfants. Nous sommes ici dans l'habitude de ne permettre a notre Moel de faire circoncision sans notre permission et il est evident qu'aucun de ces nouveaux Chretiens ou Marranos, comme ils sont connus, ne pourrait faire circoncire un enfant sans notre permission. Quel devrait etre notre attitude, M. le Grand Rabbin, si ce gens s'addressaient a nous? Iis ont certainement toute notre Sympathie et leurs cas nous semblent tres interessants, mais faut-il intro? duce de nouveaux dans le Judaisme de gens situes dans des conditions speciales, habitant des villages loin de toute culture juive; des gens destines peut etre plus tard a abandoner par indifference ou interet les precepts de notre religion? J'attire aussi votre attention sur les circonstances du Portugal, quoique tres liberal aujourd'hui, a ete tres intolerant et pourrait encore le devenir, car le parti clerical est encore tres vivace et peut-etre a peine endormi pour le moment. II faut dire aussi que l'anti-semitisme n'existe presque pas en Portugal, mais pourrait-il se reveiller si nous faisions du proselytisme ou un semblant de proselytisme? J'apporte toute ces considerations a votre sagesse, a votre intelligence eclaree ainsi qu'a vos nobles sentiments juifs pour nous guider et nous indiquer le chemin a suivre. Dans l'attente de lire votre parole eclairee de vous prie M. le Grand Rabbin d'accepter l'expression de ma tres haute consideration. Le President du Comite signe: ?? Le Premier Secretaire: signe: Adolf Benarus 13 The corner of the page is missing. i8o</page><page sequence="9">Jewish missionary activity in Portugal between the Wars Appendix II Letter from Chief Rabbi Jacob Meir to the President of the Lisbon synagogue14 22 Av 5684 (12 Aout 1924) Monsieur le President de la Communaute Israelite Lisbon Monsieur le President, En reponse a votre honoree de 25 de Juin a.o. nous avons le plaisir de vous indiquer que, les marans (convertis par forces) sont considered comme Israelites, et votre Communaute doit remplir leur desir et circoncir leurs enfants, sans craindre ? ce qu'ils peuve ? Pavenir retourner ? leur conver? sion de manque de sentiments religieux ou par habitude. Concernant la crainte que vous exprimez dans votre letter que, la conver? sion en masse de ces marans pourrait causer sentiments d'antisemitisme, nous croyons si ce cas arrive vous devez entrer en pourparlers avec les Organisations d'imigration comme la Jewish Colonisation Association, Paris, la Joint Distribution Committee, New York, la zion, Executive, Jerusalem, pour qu'elles fassent le possible ? faire immigrer ces marans en Palestine. Nous serons heureux de vous aider dans ces demarches et pour cela nous vous prions de vouloir bien nous ecrire des details precises sur la situation moral et financiere et le nombre de ces marans et s'ils acceptant en principe a immigrer. Agreez, Monsieur le President, nos sinceres salutations Age. President, Benjamin Allensez Seer. General, Samuel 14 Copy in W. S. Samuel's papers in the author's possession. The typed copy has numerous incorrect accents. i8i</page></plain_text>

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