Elias Lipiner

By ©  Inacio Steinhardt

Sunday, May 21, 2006




The young printer's apprentice from Bessarabia will be remembered by many generations to come as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, historian of Jewish life in Portugal.

When he passed away in 1998, a Portuguese journalist wrote:

"Once again we must repeat the usual plaint: foreigners are those who mostly show us the reality of our history in its nakedness and they research aspects of our past which we prefer to forget. Elias Lipiner, who now passed away in Israel at the age of 82, was one of those devoted historians, who has researched during three decades, the complicated maze of the Portuguese Inquisition and its action in Portugaland Brazil. Almost unknown among us Elias Lipiner gave us nevertheless an essential bibliography for the understanding of centuries of shameful memory impossible to bury or forget". ["Elias Lipiner, o Historiador da Liberdade de Consciência", António Carvalho, in "Diário de Notícias"[

I was introduced to Elias Lipiner, in 1981, by a mutual friend, the late Amilcar Paulo.

During Amilcar's first visit to Israel on the occasion of the Seventh World Congress of Jewish Studies, in Jerusalem, we had a very brief encounter at the entrance of the Givat Ram campus. Probably Lipiner did not even retain my name.

Three years later, after Amilcar's death, I received a postcard from Elias Lipiner, asking me to come to his office in Tel Aviv, to pick up something that he had brought back from Oporto, at the request of Amilcar's widow. It was a copy of a posthumous book authored by our late friend.

This was when we really got to know each other.

I was immediately captured by his kindness and his amiability, his unique facial expression that I will always remember, radiating wisdom and kindheartedness.

My second surprise was the richest library on the history of the Jews in Portugal that I couldn't believe existed in Israel. I could not restrain myself from browsing his bookshelves, replete with fundamental books on the subject that fascinated me, some of them very rare and difficult to obtain.

Lipiner questioned me with a captivating affability about the reasons of my interest for Jewish history in Portugal, and I told him the experiences with the crypto-Jews that I have enjoyed for so many years, and my amateur endeavors to understand better this phenomenon by means of the history of the Jews in the country where I was born.

We found easily a common language.

I must admit that until that occasion I had never heard about the work of Elias Lipiner not even the fact that he was a well known historian of Judaism in Portugal.

With his genuine generosity Lipiner presented me immediately with copies of two of the books he authored, which became the first items of a most cherished collection of nearly all his books and many of his published articles.

Spontaneously Lipiner offered me the possibility of using his library at any time.

This encounter was the beginning of a very close friendship and of a familiarity, limited only by time restrictions on both sides. Most unfortunately it was abruptly interrupted too soon and in tragic circumstances.  But it gave me plenty of opportunities to witness the generosity of his character and the modesty that concealed it.

Elias was born in 1916, in Hotin, Bessarabia.

His father, Gedalia Lipiner was a "melamed", a teacher of Hebrew.

Elias was very proud of his rich command of the Hebrew language which he had learned at a very young age, "sitting in his father's lap". He was to become a polyglot and a linguist of recognized knowledge.

The economic difficulties which faced most Jewish families in Europe did not surpass the Lipiner's household. As a teenager Elias went to work as a printer's apprentice.

In 1935, at the age of 19, he joined the emigration wave to Brazil, where his married sister was already living in S. Paulo.

His brother-in-law introduced him to the traditional Jewish trade of those days: the "clientela". Elias Lipiner became a "clientshik", a peddler, like most of his fellow Jewish immigrants.

But Elias Lipiner was born with other skills and different ambitions. Yitzhak Z. Raizman, another Brazilian Jewish writer, remembers when he left his job as an editor of the "Sao Paulo Yidisher Zeitung" and Lipiner replaced him. ["Jewish Creativity in Portuguese Speaking Countries: Portugal and Brazil", Itzhak Z, Raizman, Museum of Printing, Zefat, 1975 – in Yiddish]

He didn't stay there for long until he took a new position as a teacher of Yiddish and Hebrew at the Jewish School "Hatehiah".

This was during the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas, when difficulties were raised to the "foreigners", as the Jews were considered in Brazil. A teacher, even of Hebrew, had to hold a formal Brazilian education, at least High School graduation.

Elias prepared himself alone for the examination. His knowledge of the language of Bessarabia, Romanian, a romance language, made it easier for him to learn Portuguese. And he presented himself for examination as an external student in a school in the province. And he obtained his diploma.

In 1944, Lipiner moved to Rio de Janeiro, in order to study Law at the local University. At the same time he became "unofficially" the editor of Jewish monthly "Aonde Vamos". (in Portuguese, because Yiddish had been banned as a printed language in Brazil).

One day, when the two of us went together to a store to make some Xerox copies of an article, Lipiner told me about the financial problems which were a burden in his studies. He couldn't afford to buy the books. Xerox copiers had not been invented yet. So at lunch time he used to eat only some bananas, which were cheap in Brazil, and spend the time in the library copying the texts by hand.

At the end of his studies he returned to S. Paulo and opened a Law office. In 1955, in the University of S. Paulo, he completed his Master of Law, which he revalidated in 1968 in Israel, to be admitted to the Israel Bar Association.

It was as a Lawyer "who never lost a case", that he made the money to raise his family but also to spend in his endless researches. He only gave up completely his Law clientele when he felt that time was becoming short to complete all the studies that he still had scheduled to accomplish. In his Law office two steel cabinets were full with "cases", filed in exactly the same way lawyers use to file their customer's cases. And he was already working twelve hours a day and even more, in order to bring as many as possible to print.

He was not looking for the glory of seeing his name in the byline of more books. He had already so many. And I am pretty sure that he never made any income from his books. On the contrary he invested in them the money he had made in his work as a most respected lawyer.

Lipiner had one goal: "Let the world know, let the Portuguese people know!"

"From the dept of that sea of 40 thousand codices [The Inquisition files kept at the Torre do Tombo National Archives, in Lisbon – IS] the souls of 40 thousand people are calling for their presence. Overloaded with distressing biographies and severe lessons of History, they refuse to let them sink in the abyss of oblivion, as their bodies have."

This was what motivated him, 50 years before his death, to translate into Yiddish Samuel Usque's "Consolação às Tribulações de Israel" ("Bai Di Taijn Fun Portugal", Instituto Cientifico Judio, Buenos Aires, 1949 – An English translation of the original, " Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel", edited by Martin A. Cohen, is available here).

Lipiner had discovered that an important gap in the historiography of the Jews in Portugal was the lack of cross-reference between the Portuguese and the Jewish sources. Being fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish as well as in Portuguese, he has performed an enormous work to overcome this gap. Yet there is still a lot to be done in this field.

Of the three dialogs in Usque's book, Lipiner chose to translate only a small part of the first, and the full text of the third. The reason was because only the third dealt with the persecutions to the Jews in Spain and Portugal. The first two dialogues concerned ancient and better known events. In stead he preferred to add a biography of the author, a detail of the circumstances under which the book was written and many footnotes.

Each file in his cabinet concerned the life and the trial of another victim of the Inquisition. He studied the legal proceedings with the sharp mind of a lawyer. He was very scrupulous with each detail.

I was a witness to the preparations of such books as "Gaspar da Gama", "Izaque de Castro", "O Sapateiro de Trancoso e o Alfaiate de Setúbal" and "Gonçalo Anes Bandarra". Quite often he would tell me that he was traveling to Portugal, only to verify a detail in the file he was working on. He refused to be "a compiler" of historical books. He was a researcher and an innovator. He never accepted a published source for granted without confronting it with the original. Quite often he found discrepancies that would add more light to the case he was investigating.

Sometimes he felt frustrated when the employees at the archives would tell him that a file could not be consulted because of damages. "Why didn't you ask the director?" - I asked him when this director happened to be an historian that knew and respected him very much. "Why should he make special concessions to me? Who am I?" 

But the same director, and many other researchers, and even minor amateurs like me, did not hesitate to have recourse to his exceptional knowledge . He never refused information and a word of advice. He would also connect between people when he thought that one could help the other better than he could. This way I have met many interesting people with whom I have in common our gratitude to Elias Lipiner.

He couldn't stand factual mistakes in other people's books, nor typographic errors. Thus he was very meticulous and pedant in his own writing. He also appreciated an elegant and attractive literary style in books of history. This is an appreciated quality of his books.

At times somebody would call on him to ask about a subject that was in the list of the tasks he had planned for himself. If he was not already working on it, Lipiner would give the information and erase that particular item from his list! Since somebody else was taking care of this character, then he would devote his time to other subjects. They were so many.

This happened to me when Elvira Mea suggested that we should write together a biography of Captain Barros Basto. Elvira didn't know, but I knew that Lipiner had this subject in his "to do list". I discussed the subject with him. "It's true and you know it. But I don't know when I would find the time for that book. And I am sure that each one of you has a lot  of information that I would have to research myself. So you are first, go ahead and if I can be of help at any time, do not hesitate to ask me. This is another book that has to be written. And I am anxious to see it in print."

Lipiner's personality had a second completely different aspect which I do not consider myself qualified to analyze: his passion for the Kaballah and specifically for the mysticism of the Hebrew alphabet. The first books he wrote in Yiddish were essays on the mystics of the Alphabet.. One of them, published in Buenos Aires, was even withdrawn from the market with his consent or eventually by his initiative and I don't know why.

When he first presented me with a copy of his Hebrew book "Hazon HaOtiot" (The Vision of the Letters, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1989), I was really surprised. "This is an aspect of your personality that I didn't know". "So now you will know my other personality!".

I confess that in spite of my efforts I could not apprehend the contents of the book. It was easier when he gave me an abridged version in Portuguese. Some of his critics point out the fact that as an historian is was a man of facts but as a mystic his writings were between legend and fantasy. I don't know enough to decide what Lipiner had in his mind.

A third aspect of his personality, which I only know from other people, was his poetry, which apparently he kept in secret in his drawers. He never showed them to me or discussed that with me.

When Lipiner realized that his time left in this world had suddenly become too short, he rushed to finish the manuscripts of his two last books – the two that he didn't want to go without finishing.

Both contained important messages, his last will to the memory of those "who refused to let their history sink in the abyss of oblivion, as their bodies have."

One, "Terror e Linguagem", was a most valuable tool for those who would continue his mission: an updated issue of his dictionary of terms of the inquisition. It is indispensable for those, without a background in Law, who need to understand the terminology of the inquisition codices.

"Baptisados em Pé" is the Lipiner's last cry of protest for the crimes against the Jews in Portugal. He has collected there new and updated essays about important issues, some of which he had already addressed in the past.

Two main messages were very important for him.

One was the illustration of the cover. He insisted to have there a picture of the baptism of Jesus. Because the Jews who had been forced to convert in 1497 were designated in the processes as "baptized in standing". He wanted to show that Jesus was the first Jew to be baptized in standing.

The second was the last chapter in which he wanted to show his indignation against a Portuguese historian which he accused of justifying in her work the forced conversion, the expulsion and the inquisition, without repudiating them as crimes against the right of liberty of conscience.

Two years before, the Ambassador of Portugal had decided to ask the Presidency of the Republic to grant an honorific decoration for his work in the history of Portugal. According to the protocol the process had to remain secret until confirmed by the President. The Ambassador asked me to collect the data necessary for the process without letting Lipiner know. I had to invent a lie and tell Lipiner some tale about the details about him needed for a publication that was to come up in Portugal. He didn't believe but said nothing and gave me the information.

In February 1998 I understood that my dear friend would not last long and I asked the Ambassador's permission to tell him in confidence about the decoration. The Ambassador understood and agreed. So I spoke to Lipiner, apologized for having misled him and I told him about the decoration."

Lipiner was pleased. "Of course I understood that you were not telling me the true, but I didn't figure out why you were asking such questions. Believe me I don't need any more distinctions. I have had enough in my life. But the fact that Portugal has thought of me and decided that I deserved a distinction is most gratifying. Thank you for telling me and don't worry. It will be our secret, only between you and me."

energies Elias Lipiner traveled to Portugal to deliver the two manuscripts to two different publishers. He gave them a deadline – May 1998.

On his return he brought me the first copy of "Ben Rosh", the biography of Captain Barros Basto which I have co-authored with Elvira Mea.

I asked his opinion about the book.

For the first and only time I saw Lipiner crying: "You know how much I wanted to read this book. In spite of all my efforts, I did not read it. I can't concentrate any more".

He wanted to have the time to proofread his last two books. "I hate mistakes in the books I read and I don't want the readers of my books to suffer what I can't tolerate."

He did make the first proofing. A last and frustrating effort.

In order to save time, since I was traveling to Portugal for Passover, I took with me the first proof of "Os Baptisados em Pé" and volunteered to read there the second proof.

Another friend, Lucia Liba Mucznik did the same for "Terror e Linguagem".

While proofreading the book I was in constant contact with him by fax, to verify some spellings that could have variants.

Then I received an excited telephone call from the publisher. Lipiner had insisted with him that he wanted two additional tables of contents in the book: onomastic and toponimic. This would be an additional expense and wouldn't possible be ready in May.

I tried to convince Lipiner to give up the idea of the indexes.

He sent me back a fax saying: "Inacio, the indexes are necessary for the reader. Tell them to employ more people and I will pay the cost. And don't worry if it will not be printed by May. I know now that I will not see this book."

Four day later, his son Gadi called me to say his Father had asked him to say goodbye to me. He had just returned his soul to the Creator. His mission was accomplished.

This is the only book by Elias Lipiner, in which I don't have his handwritten dedication. Instead I put there his last fax…

The "Comenda da Ordem de Mérito" of the Portuguese Republic was granted posthumously to the Israeli historian Elias Lipiner and vested three months after his death to his oldest son.




Two Portuguese Exiles in Castile (Hispania Judaica)
Em nome da fé: Estudos in memoriam de Elias Lipiner
Os baptizados em pé: Estudos acerca da origem e da luta dos Cristãos-novos em Portugal (Colecção Documenta histórica)
As letras do alfabeto na criação do mundo: Contribuição à pesquisa da natureza da linguagem (Série Logoteca)
O sapateiro de Trancoso e o alfaiate de Setúbal (Série Diversos)
O tempo dos judeus segundo as ordenações do reino
Izaque de Castro: O mancebo que veio preso do Brasil (Série Descobrimentos)

Inácio Steinhardt


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