My first visit to a village of "anussim", Belmonte, was a very emotional experience, which I have already described in my article "My First Encounter with Portuguese Anussim".
However, Belmonte was an exception, as compared with the difficulties I found in other places. Because in Belmonte I had previously made some friends during their visit to the synagogue in Lisbon.
Pursuing the research in other places was a quite different story, very frustrating at the beginning, most gratifying in the sequence.
The people I was looking for systematically denied being "judeus".
After a few unsuccessful attempts, I conceived the right approach that would acquire me the trust of a least one person in the place. From there on each step became easier. Some sort of invisible tie would always germinate between them and this brother-in-faith that came to meet them.
This was usually a long and patient path, sometimes resulting in not more than an eye contact, a response that was easy to recognize even if the person wouldn't dare speak openly. In most of the cases it ended up by verbal communication and mutual acceptance.
Nevertheless each case was a moving story by itself. Can you imagine what it means for a Jew to arrive in a village, far away from everything, and in each instance to disclose a new and unexpected experience of genuine Judaism?
This is what happened to me the first time I arrived in Vilarinho dos Galegos, a village in the north of Portugal, near the border of Spain, from where thousands of refugees arrived in 1492, after the expulsion by Fernando and Isabel.
The photographer Frederic Brenner and I were on a fact-finding mission for the Tel Aviv Diaspora Museum.
Roaming about the granite houses of the old part of the village, we had been asking for people with the surnames which I had collected from the archives of Captain Barros Basto, who had found in Vilarinho a community of crypto-Jews eventually much larger than the one in Belmonte.
Soon we were able to interpret two sorts of responses: those who consented that there were "judeus" in the place and would even point to one or neighbor as being such, and those who dismissed us refusing to say more than a peremptory: "I don’t know nothing about Jews!". Obviously the later where the real Jews and the former not.
We entered in the house of an old woman in black, as widows dress for the rest of their lives in the Portuguese villages. I had the strange feeling that I experimenced so many times, that this woman was Jewish.
She was not rude, but obviously my insistence was more than a burden to her. I commented to Frederic in French that it was no use; this woman would not talk either. The younger woman that was with her understood French. She had been an emigrant in France. So she added: "Of course she will not say anything about being a Jewess. We don't talk about that!"
So here we had a ill disguised confession.
At this moment a young boy rushed into the house and asked: "Who is the man that came from Jerusalem?"
This was the way I was introducing myself, after finding out that sometimes Israel was not identified by them as the name of a country…
- "I am, why?"
- "Dona Luisinha sent me. She said please come to see her. She must speak to you."
I asked who was Dona Lusinha. The younger woman explained she was an old and sick lady, who lived in the other part of the village. She was lying in bed for many years."
Surprised we followed the boy and some other villagers who joined the group to meet Dona Lusinha.
She lived in a two story house and we were taken to the second floor.
What a strange scene we found there! A heavy wooden door opened into the bedroom. The walls inside showed some cracks. Hanging on the wall over the head of the old wooden bed, there was an inconspicuous framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Mary and a crucifix. On the shelves of the night table, several medicines and glass cups. A rosary with a cross was conveniently hanging at the head of the bed, on the left side of the patient.
The woman who was lying there, not really so old, but very pale, took my hand into her both hands and said without really waiting for an answer: "You came all the way from Jerusalem, mister? It was God who sent you! I must talk to you!"
Meanwhile Frederic could not resist the scene and was shooting with his camera non-stop. A white-haired woman in a modest striped robe, obviously a servant of the house, stood at the corner, her sad eyes fixed on me. Another woman who came up with us from the street had to tell me a long story about the ill-health of Dona Lusinha.
Finally the sick lady asked everybody to go out of the room and close the door. "The photographer too, please. And you too, Maria."
I was confused and wondering what was up there for me. What did she want to say?
When we were finally alone, and the door closed, Dona Luisinha whispered to me:
"I am so thankful to God for sending you and to you for coming and listening to me. I need an advice and I have been suffering for a long time waiting for somebody to give it to me. As you see I am a very sick women. I am paralyzed and I lie in this bed for already seven years. This woman that you just met, Maria, she is taking care of me, day and night. Without her help I would be dead by now. She is also one of ours!"
She paused for a while and sighed.
Then she went on almost immediately as if in need to empty her heart, to confide:
"I am lonesome, have no family of my own, you see. And I have some property. Not much, but still some value that I will not take with me. People keep telling me that I should put it in the name of this woman that has been always so faithfully and is taking care of me. And she is also one of ours!" - she repeated.
"I am willing to do that. She really deserves it. But when I think about it, I am afraid and I hesitate. I keep postponing this and people are nudging me all the time. Maria doesn't say anything, but I see in her eyes what she is expecting. She is poor and she doesn't have much of a family either. I don't know what to do!"
I was listing to her and was having a problem of conscience. Who was I? At what title was I supposed to give advice to this suffering woman, especially when she was seeing in me "the man sent by God from Jerusalem"? Poor me!
Yet, the answer seemed so easy!
Her sight was fixed on me, suspended in my lips.
"What are you afraid of, Madam? That she would abandon you the moment she get the ownership of your estate?"
"You see? You have captured my thoughts and my prayers. Yes. That's what has been tormenting me month after month."
"I am not a lawyer, nor a rabbi, or a man of God. But I think that the solution is easy. You should call a lawyer from Mogadouro, the nearby town. And he will write for you a will in legal terms by which you bequeath to this good woman, Maria, your estate, or any part of it as you may wish to give her. It will be written that she will get it only after you return your soul to the Creator, provided that she will continue to take good care good until your last day."
Her eyes shined with hope. "That's what I had in mind. But can that be done?"
"I am sure that a lawyer can do that. And then you will have a document to show her that her future is safeguarded, provided that she stays faithful to you."
She had taken again my hand between her hands and she thanked me healthfully.
Then she asked the others in. Frederic was staring at me dying of curiosity.
Maria was switching her gaze between me and her lady as if she guessed what the conversation had been about.
Dona Luisinha looked also at Maria and at me. I felt a mix of relief and of goodness in her eyes.
After this episode we had no problems to be trusted by the the "judeus" of Vilarinho dos Galegos. Since that day I have been in Vilarinho dos Galegos a few more times.
I am ashamed to say that because of other duties to accomplish and heavy agendas. I never called back at Dona Luisinha. I don't know if my easy advice was useful to her or not.
However, ten years or so after our encounter I read an article by a French protestant priest, who reported his visit to Vilarinho dos Galegos, in search of Jews. And he mentioned Dona Luisinha by her full name, as one of the Jews that he found.
So she was still alive.
© Photographs by Frederic Brenner
FOR FURTHER READING:
In the Shadow of the Virgin: Inquisitors, Friars, and "Conversos" in Guadalupe, Spain (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World)
Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews
The End of Days: A Story of Tolerance, Tyranny, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain
The Marranos of Spain: From the Late 14th to the Early 16th Century, According to Contemporary Hebrew Sources
A Drizzle of Honey : The Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews
A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective
Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews (Jewish Latin America)
Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (Modern Jewish Experience)
The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes
Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain
The Sephardi heritage;: Essays on the history and cultural contribution of the Jews of Spain and Portugal
Masks in the Mirror: Marranism in Jewish Experience
The Canonization of a Myth: Portugal's "Jewish Problem" and the Assembly of Tomar 1629 (Hebrew Union College Annual. Supplements, No. 5)
Toward the Inquisition: Essays on Jewish and Converso History in Late Medieval Spain
The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquistion and Its New Christians 1536-1765
Souls in Dispute: Converso Identities in Iberia and the Jewish Diaspora, 1580-1700 (Jewish Culture and Contexts)
Heretics or Daughters of Israel? The Crypto-Jewish Women of Castile
Art of Subversion in Inquisitional Spain (Purdue Studies in Romance Literatures)
Report on the "Marranos" or Crypto-Jews of Portugal: Presented to the Alliance israelite universelle and the Council of the Anglo-Jewish Association, Mar. 1926
Los judíos en Portugal (Colecciones MAPFRE 1492)