(JOAQUIM VERÍSSIMO DE BRITO ABRANTES)
Of Blessed Memory
Moisés Abrantes passed away in December 2003. He was 92 years old.
He has been always a lonely man. But in the last years of his life he felt it more than ever. He was sick and frail. He could not go out of his apartment in Fundão. He had problems with his eyes. He could not read. He could not write.
We have exchanged letters until his 90th. birthday which was commemorated with a lunch with some of his old friends and a story in the local newspaper – the "Jornal do Fundão".
After that I used to call him by phone, from Israel, from time to time.
In my last attempts to call him, I was answered by a recorded message saying that the number was disconnected.
Then I asked by email Rabbi Sallas, of Belmonte – 40 kms. away from Fundão – if he knew anything about my friend. The sad news were that he had passed away in December (2003).
And he had been buried in the Catholic cemetery of his town.
I was very sad to read that.
Moises was a Jew, not only formally but also in all his soul. I had introduced Moises Abrantes to the Crypto-Jewish community of Belmonte in 1985, one day after I met him for the first time.
When the community started the first steps to return to mainstream Judaism , and were thinking of building a synagogue, Moises insisted in vain that they should start by creating a Jewish cemetery.
"One can pray in any clean place. But when a Jew dies he wants to be buried in sacred soil. Not in the middle of the crosses. I am not rich but I am willing to contribute with an important sum towards the purchase of land for a cemetery in Belmonte. When I die, I want to make sure that the angel of Jacob will find a good land for his ladder."
Yes, This is the way he used to express himself. Moises liked to speak inparables.
Rabbi Sallas told me that a lady member of the community, Conceição, had died in the same day and he was busy with her funeral. When he heard about Moisés, he had already been buried and his next-of-kin, a niece, told the rabbi that it had been her uncle's last will to be buried in the Christian cemetery.
It is possible, I don't know. Captain Barros Basto, the leader of the Crypto-Jews in Oporto, has also asked to be buried in the cemetery of his home town, Amarante, next to his father and his son.
Nevertheless I am informed that a few years ago Moises had consulted the Lisbon Jewish Community to find out if he could be buried there.
I first met Moises Abrantes in 1985.
I was in Belmonte, with Frederic Brenner, the well-known photographer, on an assignment for Beth Hatefussot "The Diaspora Museum", of Tel Aviv, and we were staying at the house of a friend, Abilio Morao Henriques.
Abilio asked us where were we going from Belmonte. We told him that we were going to photograph Crypto-Jews in other places in Portugal. "Impossible" – he said – "We are the only ones left". I tried to explain that there were still other marrano communities in certain villages and townlets in the North and even around Belmonte.
"Where, for instance?" I told him that the next day we would travel to Fundão, 40 kms south of Belmonte.
Frederic had heard that his younger sister was vacationing with some friends in Fundao and he wanted to find her. Since we had decide to go from place to place and look for Crypto-Jews, we might as well start from there.
"I will take you in my car" – said Abilio – "I am curious to see how you find Jews!"
The next day, a Sunday morning, we made our first stop in a coffee house in the main street of Fundão.
While having our breakfast I asked the waiter if there were any Jews in their town. The man took offense of my question. "We are all decent people, here in Fundão, we have no Jews!". But then a shoeshiner who overheard the conversation, said to us: "Look for Joaquim Judeu, he has a stationary shop".
Eventually he showed as the street, and we went there. But it was Sunday and the shop was closed. We asked a passer-by where could we find Joaquim Judeu. "He has a house out of town, in the fields. He is probably there". "Is he really a Jew?". "No, people just call him Judeu, but he probably isn't". Are there any other Jews in Fundão? "Perhaps the two Gaiolas sisters." "Where do they live?"
The gentleman showed us the house "But probably they are not at home. They must have gone to the mess!"
Confusing isn't it?
Well , we were received by two charming old ladies. Yes, they had been Jews, but now they go to the church like everybody else. Soon they were explaining to us how they used to light oil lamps on Friday nights and they were reciting several Jewish prayers in Portuguese, all by heart.
Our friend from Belmonte, Abilio, couldn't believe his own eyes and ears. "Those are exactly the same prayers that my wife, Amalia, says. I didn't know that other people, outside Belmonte, also knew them".
We asked about "Joaquim Judeu". "He is my cousin. He knows a lot more. He must be working in his plot of land. If you would like to meet him, I will go with you and show you the way".
At the request of the lady we stop on the road, a few meters before the fence of Joaquim's house. She wanted to go there alone, to ask him if he would like to speak to us. Soon a bare-torso man showed at the gate and saluted us in Hebrew: "Shalom Aleihem. My name is Moshe".
The next day, in Belmonte, Abílio told us that he had received a telephone call from Fundão. The word had spread there too that there were other Jews in Belmonte, and they wanted to come and meet them.
That evening the first meeting between the Jews from Belmonte and Fundão took place, at Abílio's house.
They lived for centuries only 40 kms apart. Their paths had probably crossed several times in the past. Yet they didn't know that they shared the same secret. Bottles of champagne were opened to celebrate. And they all sang the same prayers in Portuguese, that had been transmitted for centuries, each generation to the next generation.
Joaquim Judeu was with them. Since then we have been friends,
I think that this encounter has changed something in his life. From there on he had a new letterhead printed and he used only his Jewish name MOISÉS ABRANTES. He also wrote short stories and articles which were published in "Jornal do Fundão". They were all signed Moisés Abrantes.
"On this first day of the month of Sivan of the year five thousands six hundred and ninety one, being the seventeenth day of the month of May of the year one thousand nine hundred and thirty one of the common era, in this city of Oporto, took place the ceremony of the milah of Joaquim de Brito Abrantes, at the age of nineteen years, born in Fundão, the son of Jayme Pedro Abrantes and Maria das Dores Veríssimo e Brito. He received the name of Moshe. Witnesses of this act were the talmidim Iomtob Rodrigues and Levi Rafael. Let it be known. Signed by the witnesses Luiz Rafael Henriques – Iomtob Rodrigues – Brito Abrantes"
Moisés was therefore 19 years old when he was admitted in the Alliance of Abraham, under the auspices of Captain Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto, alias Abraham Israel Ben-Rosh.
He started as a student in the Rosh Pinah Jewish Theological Seminar (yeshiba), founded by Barros Basto, the Apostle of the Marranos.
Having had a better education in their youth, two of the talmidim were chosen to be "moreh" (teacher). Samuel Rodrigues was assigned to work at the Yeshiba, and Moises Abrantes was sent first to Bragança, and later to Lagoaça and Vilarinho dos Galegos.
There he opened a school for the sons and daughters of the "judeus". Most of those children had never gone to school. So he had to teach them reading and writing together with rudiments of Judaism., which he shared also with the older people.
The teacher had to live in a rented room. Money was not always available and scarce , because the captain was very short of it. Quite often he did not have enough to buy food.
Then came the persecution against the captain by certain members of the clergy and the regime. Moises returned to Oporto. From there, before he could be questioned by the police[i] he returned quietly to his hometown Fundao and got a job as a clerk. From there on he was known as "Joaquim Judeu". The police agents got him there. His declarations are part of the proceedings of the process of which Barros Basto was acquitted, but lead to his dismissal from the army, by a disciplinary board.
Moises Abrantes has always refused to answer to questions about the events at the Oporto yeshiba. I, for one, as a biographer of the captain, have insisted with him until a certain point. I then learned that the reputation of more than one individuals were involved and I respected the silence that my friend has imposed upon himself. Because he was a good man. He didn't want to speak out in spite of the fact that he had a big feud with one of those persons.
One day, before Yom Kipur, Moises Abrantes decide to address a letter to me and sent it through a lawyer, Mr. Max Azancot, a brother-in –law of Barros Basto. Max Azancot didn't understand why this man had sent to his office a letter addressed to me. He sent me the letter to Israel. A few days later, Max Azancot passed away before I could explain it to him. In this letter Moises Abrantes made a short statement saying that he never had anything against captain Barros Basto and always respected him. If at any time, he had made any statement in detriment of the captain, a fact that he did not remember, it had been certainly because he was young and was induced by somebody else."
When I tried to discuss this personally with him, Moises said only:
"If an infant has soiled with his stools the floor of your living room, you have two choices: either you let it dry and then you easily swap it out with a broom, or you begin messing with it and soon the whole room is messed up and soiled."
Moises Abrantes was a man who spoke with parables.
"Sua alma ditosa goze da vida eternal. Amen."
"Joaquim Judeu" in his cherished private library in the basement of his house.
The chandelier was handmade by him and it had an Hebrew inscription:
"Hear oh Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One"
© Inacio Steinhardt, 2004
[i] For details on the process read "BEN-ROSH – Biografia do Capitao Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto, Apostolo dos Marranosª , by Elvira Mea and Inacio Steinhardt