My First Encounter with Portuguese Anussim -Second Part

By ©Inacio Steinhardt

Friday, January 20, 2006


While I was talking to Mr. Gidekel about this, I noticed that the door of the synagogue opened, and Antonio, the concierge, introduced two black-suited men, showing them the first seats to the right of the door, used usually by non-Jewish visitors.
Something inside me urged me to talk to the men. I told Mr. Gidekel that I had a strange feeling about them. I approached their seats, said hello and asked who they were.
"We are JEWS from Belmonte".
This was my first encounter with our brethren the Portuguese anussim.

I learned their names: Elias Diogo Henriques and his son-in-law, António Nunes Diogo. They told me that their wives were seating upstairs in the women's gallery. An important issue in their lives had come to a safe solution and the women had made a vow to come to Lisbon and pray in the synagogue in Day of Atonement, or "Dia Puro", as they called it. (Pure Day, in Portuguese, obviously because it sounds like Kippur).

That was about all we could speak in that evening, because meanwhile the Chazzan was ready to start Kol Nidre and we all returned to our seats.

The next morning I brought with me Schwarz's book ("New-Christians in Portugal in the 20th. Century" – a primer for the story of the Marranos in our days) and I showed it to the visitors. They were surprised for two good reasons: first because they saw for the first time their own prayers in print. In their community the prayers were kept jealously as a religious secret and it was certainly forbidden to keep them in writing. Secondly they saw in the book the pictures of some of their relatives and friends. Most of them already dead.

They asked permission to keep the book for a while and I noticed that after browsing some of the pages they used the book for praying! Later I was about to learn that the men do not know the prayers. In the village men and women pray together. The women know the texts by heart and the men repeat the words after them when instructed to do so.

To all my questions about their ritual they had only one answer. "We don't know, you must ask the wives."

After a while the women signed from upstairs, and the men rose to meet them in the yard. It was time for the first of five prayers of the day. I went after them.

I was caught by deception! I could not speak to the women that day. Their vow included abstaining not only from food and drink, but also from uttering any words except to pray.

My wife and I had made up our minds to invite the four of them to break the fast with us. But at the end of Nehila they rushed to catch the train, back to their place 360 km away. They insisted that we should come to visit them in Belmonte.


Eight months later I had lunch in the Ritz Hotel, in Lisbon, with an American friend. Maurice Swergold, and with a young Dutchman, who was staying in Lisbon in a mission for the World Bank. I don't remember his name.

Being all the three Jews the subject of the small number of Jews in Portugal came up during our conversation. Again I mentioned the crypto-Jews of the North of Portugal. Yes, they had heard about that, but both were very skeptic. Probably this was some kind of Protestant sect, not really Jews. However now I knew what I was talking about. I told them about my Kol Nidre encounter. And I suggested that we should go, the three of us, to Belmonte, and see with our own eyes.

It was decided that I should contact my new friends to make sure that they would be there the next Sunday.

Only then I figured that I had no address or phone number. Just their names and the name of the village, Belmonte.

I sent a telegram figuring that they would be known in such a small place. By Wednesday I had no answer. I looked in the telephone directory for Belmonte. There were barely a dozen of names in the list, none of my friends. Browsing through the names, I found a surname that matched an entry in Schwarz's book.

I called that number tentatively. The gentleman that picked up the phone knew Elias Diogo Henriques alright. "Half the village belongs to the Diogo Henriques family". Could he call Elias to the phone? Not easy. They are out for their business in a distant open market. A message? Yes, I met them in Lisbon last year. "In the synagogue, I suppose?" Yes, and we would like to come and visit them next Sunday, could they please confirm that they will be there. "Of course they will be here. Just come." But I am coming with friends. "No problem, all people from the 'Nation' are welcome in Belmonte".

Sunday afternoon when we arrived in Belmonte, we were met in the main square by a bunch of men in dark suits who took us to the house of Elias and his wife Maria. The children were sent to street to watch "if there were no spies listening to our conversation."

I asked if I the gentleman to whom I had spoken over the phone was present, because I wanted to thank him for his kindness.

"Don't you speak to him anymore about our religion! He has been excluded from our ceremonies! Enough to say that he married an 'Old-Christian' woman!"

Twenty years later, when having lunch with Frederic Brenner in a small restaurant in Belmonte, an old gentleman came from a nearby table and greeted us: "Shalom". He was the gentleman to whom I had spoken over the phone in 1964. Meanwhile he had moved to a place near Lisbon. He was not welcome by his relatives in Belmonte. But he still had some propriety there and he came from time to time to look for his estate. "And I am still a Jew if they want or not!"

In the house of the Diogo Henriques family, people didn't stop to come in. It was noisy and very difficult to keep a conversation. Especially because my companions did not understand Portuguese and I could hardly stop to translate for them.

Then a tall old man came in. He was introduced to us. He is the oldest person in our "family" – 90 years old! "You are from Lisbon, they say. I have a friend there. Maybe you know him. His name is Samuel!"

Samuel Schwarz had passed away in Lisbon 11 years before

On our way back to Lisbon that night we were all very excited. The Dutch young man suggested that each one of us should write down his impressions and testimonies and then exchange our notes between us.

Maurice Swergold didn't write and I never heard again from the other member of our expedition. After waiting in vain I translated my notes to Hebrew and sent it to the Haaretz newspaper of Tel Aviv.

They were published in September 1964.


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