Captain Barros Basto, the Apostle of the Marranos

By ©Inacio Steinhardt

Wednesday, July 07, 1999


The above quotation from Elaine and Robert Rosenthal's article "The Portuguese Dreyfus" was chosen by the authors to open the book "Ben-Rosh ---- A Biography of Captain Barros Basto, The Apostle of the Marranos".

Did Barros Basto's cause really fail? and why?

Barros Basto, as a person, had a bitter end. He was dismissed from the army and dishonoured and his yeshiva was closed. Political enemies, and the hatred of the catholic clergy who felt threatened by him, combined to take advantage of internal dissensions among the Jews, and destroy him as a person.

Yet, those Jews who opposed Barros Basto's work were convinced of their own righteousness, and each of them was sure of acting in the best interests of the Jewish faith and of the marranos. Were they right? It is important to be sure of this, lest the same mistakes be repeated in our days.

Barros Basto was by nature a man of principle and of action, devoted to the betterment of the world and of humanity. He was one of the founders of scouting in Portugal; he fought alongside, and worked with, the republicans who overthrew the monarchy; he even founded a new religion - Oryam - in an attempt to mould the character and the way of life of the "mountaineers" of his birthplace.

From his loving grandfather he learned the secret of his family’s Jewish origin. This revelation led him to try to force his way into the mainstream of Judaism, despite the opposition of the Jewish community in his country.

His ancestors were "New Christians", descendants of those Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity in 1497. But they were not necessarily crypto-Jews or marranos . The moment he returned to Oporto and began to form a Jewish community with the few Ashkenazi residents of the town, he was surprised at the number of his compatriots who appeared before him and admitted having practiced Jewish rites in secret.

Fascinated with these revelations, Barros Basto travelled extensively through the villages and towns of northern Portugal, in order to get acquainted with these crypto-Jews, and to learn more about their religious practices and their way of life.

He made no attempt to change such beliefs and practices. What he did do was devote himself to stripping the secrecy from their way of life, to convincing them that the Republican revolution - in which he had taken part - had opened a new era of freedom for the still practicing descendants of the Jewish victims of forced conversion. Unfortunately, he did not know then just how shortlived this freedom was to be.

Barros Basto’s "Work of Redemption" was intended to lead the marranos into practicing their own version of the Jewish religion openly and without fear, and to help them, by all available means, to recover and bring up to date all the information about Judaism which they had lost during the preceding four centuries.

The "Portuguese Marranos Committee" of London, which was formed as soon as the news of the discovery of secret Jews in Portugal became known in the Jewish World , approved Barros Basto’s work and gave it financial support.

Not so Maurits Van Son, of Amsterdam, and his "Nederlandsche Pro-Marrano Vereeniging".

In his booklet "Verleden en heden der Marranen in Portugal" , Van Son, an orthodox Jew, wrote: "... They don’t ask for anything, but their eyes speak for their will to be admitted into the assembly of Israel."

They did not ask for anything, it’s true. They don’t ask for anything even today. Their faith, and their belief, were strong enough to keep them Jews - even in the eyes of their Catholic neighbours - for 400 years. Why then should they need to ask to be admitted? They believed in the Captain; they were ready to take the hand that he extended to them, and eager to learn what he was teaching them - the history of their people and their own history, the meaning of their own Judaic traditions, and the comparable practices of the rest of the Jewish World. By no means, however, were they ready to give up the faith and the practices which they had learned from their grandmothers.

Manuel Marques, a one-time Catholic priest who has since left the priesthood to return to secular life, had this to say about the faith of the marranos: "I have changed, because everything has changed around me.

It was the contact at the moment of death that impressed me the most. I felt their faith to be so strong that I could almost touch it. This became a big problem for me: I had come to Belmonte in order to convert the Jews , to carry on the work of my predecessors, but they were the ones who converted me."

Rabbi Baruch Ben-Jacob, a "haham" from Salonica, whom the Dutch committee hoped to appoint as Chief Rabbi of the marranos, decided to decline the position, because he could not go along with the Captain’s views, nor with the attachment of the marranos to their traditions.

On his departure, after he had told them that old traditions would have to be abandoned and replaced by orthodox practices, the old women of Braganחa wondered "is Judaism a religion of what to eat and drink and such material things?".

Yet Rabbi Ben-Jacob, in his report spoke of his emotion: "I could not hold back the hot tears in my eyes. Thus amidst a great enthusiasm of faith and religion, I departed sorrowfully from such an impressive assembly".

The Jewish community of Lisbon had mixed feelings about the discovery of the marranos. No Jewish heart could remain unmoved, in the face of the phenomenon of people who were strong enough to keep their Jewish faith for over 400 years. Some of the Jews of Lisbon were in favour of accepting the marranos as they were; others claimed that the marranos had already become "alien corn", and that any contact with them would endanger the precarious status of the small Jewish community of Portugal, which was itself seen as alien by the authorities. Finally, there were those among the leaders of the community who, after consulting the chief rabbi of Erets-status Israel, were willing to accept the marranos as brethren, provided only that these would undertake to observe orthodox practices, and accept the hegemony of the Lisbon community.

Under severe pressure as a result of the problems created in his army service by religious enemies, the Captain committed several grave mistakes in the management of the Community which he led, and allowed personal feuds and jealousies to develop and flourish among those persons whom he selected to replace him in his work, during his absences.

The first anonymous denunciation to the police was seen by the latter as an internal community matter, "the Jews washing their dirty linen".

Nevertheless it was the first skirmish in the long campaign of civil and military persecution against Barros Basto, which in the end was to destroy him physically, though never in spirit.

The repercussions of the persecutions against the captain, the closure of the yeshiva, the the freedom of religion.

Growing strength of the reactionaries in the Roman Catholic Church and of the political police, and last but not least, the rise of Nazism in Germany, all worked together to frighten those marranos who had believed the Captain, and who had prematurely celebrated the freedom of religion.

The return to clandestine Jewish worship was very hard, especially for the younger generation. In townlets and villages, which when Barros Basto first arrived counted hundreds of practicing crypto-Jews, there remain today only a few individuals, sometimes only pointed out as "Jews" but ignorant of any Jewish tradition. From time to time a son or a daughter of such a family finds his or her way to full conversion, and seeks a place in mainstream Judaism.

But there is no easy path from a secretive marrano home to the Synagogue with all its internal divisions. Traditionally, Judaism is not a religion of proselytism. Seldom are newcomers received with love and open arms. Judaism is an ethnic religion, and the Orthodox rabbis are usually suspicious of those who tap at their doors. The marranos themselves are also cautious and suspicious. These new searchers suffer, and resent the cold welcome which they usually receive.

Nevertheless, there do exist examples of a successful relationship, eventually leading to full integration. The crypto-Jewish community of Belmonte has succeeded in surviving the crisis. It is the only such community in Portugal to have done so.

Perhaps because the influence of Barros Basto in Belmonte was less strongly felt (although some young men of Belmonte attended the Yeshiva in Oporto, and never returned home...), perhaps because of some sort of a feud that existed between Barros Basto and Samuel Schwarz, the "discoverer" of the Belmonte community, perhaps because Belmonte has been widely publicized by Schwarz and several other visitors - the crypto-Jews of Belmonte were eventually offered full integration into the mainstream of Judaism.

Twenty years ago, the present Catholic priest of Belmonte claimed in a letter to this author that he personally was against giving Catholic sacraments to people who, as an open secret, kept the Mosaic law at home.

"Somebody should come from Israel to convince them that now they are free to practice their religion in public. Let them build a synagogue and I will be the first to help."

Father Registo’s wish became true. A synagogue was built in Belmonte’s old Jewish quarter, "Marrocos."

Two factors have influenced the acceptance of the change by the Belmontese marranos: the much wider choice of marriage partners which followed the end of endogamy within the strict family clan (this was already causing serious health problems) and the end of religious matriarchy.

This article is being written shortly before the presentation to the public of the biography of Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto at the Kadoory Mekor Haim Synagogue, in Oporto, which he himself proudly inaugurated in 1938, after all his years of trouble.

The synagogue was closed for many years, but has reopened now for the benefit of a community of newcomers. Marranos are seldom seen there.

One year earlier, on December 5th.1996 (the date on which, 500 years previously, the Edict of Expulsion was signed by king Manuel I), a synagogue - Bet Eliahu - was inaugurated in Belmonte.

Most of the Belmonte community have converted to Judaism. But is that the appropriate verb to use? "Converted"? People whom even the priests themselves, let alone the rest of the population, called by no other name than "judeus" (Jews)? Did they need to be "converted"?

They now pray in Hebrew; men wear talitoth and tephilin, women go in the streets of Belmonte with fancy hats no different than in Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim.

However, in the secrecy of their homes, they still light the same traditional shabbat oil lamps, and bake their own matsot..... after being for so many years "crypto-Jews", hiding their religious acts from the eyes of the priests, they have become "crypto-marranos", hiding their marrano activities from the rabbis.

Is there any reason for Orthodox mainstream Judaism to claim exclusive proprietorship of the Jewish faith? Should not such communities as the Falasha (Ethiopian), Ben Yisrael (India), the Marranos and any other bona-fide Jewish groups (including Conservative and Reform Jews) be considered equal members --- different, perhaps, but equal nonetheless --- of the same religion?

Naturally those who choose orthodox Judaism should be accepted according to the rules of Halakhah. Their motives might be the absence of solid traditions in their families, or even the wish to marry a member of a different Jewish group. But otherwise, why should they need anybody’s approval to be what their forefathers taught them to be?

Barros Basto’s biography is witness to the difficulty of freeing oneself from the stigma, when one is descended from Jews.

Inacio Steinhardt

January 1998

Copyright 1997, 1998, 1999 Inacio Steinhardt


Ben-Rosh - Uma biografia do capitão Barros Bastos, o apóstolo dos marranos (click to see)
de Elvira Cunha Azevedo Mea, Inácio Steinhardt




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