Monday, March 14, 2016

The Portuguese Dreyfus

The deathbed confession by his grandfather of a secret Jewish identity had a profound and life-changing effect on Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basta (1887 - 1961). He began to educate himself, learned Hebrew and sought out the small Jewish community that existed in Lisbon. Eventually, Barros Basto made his way to Morocco, where he studied for a formal conversion to Judaism (completed in Tunisia).

Following the 1910 revolution (in which Barras Basta took part) that overthrew the Portuguese monarchy and established the Republic, Barras Basta believed his country was now ready for the free and public expression of Jewish pride. Barras Basta settled in the city of Porto and began encouraging marranos (secret Jews still in hiding, even though the Inquisition had ended) to reclaim their heritage. Many of them did.

In 1929, he began gathering funds to build the Kadoori Synagogue (also known as the Mekor Haim). The four story art-deco building was inaugurated in 1938. A yeshiva and a seminary were also built. In an effort to publicize his efforts and teach marranos, Barras Basta published a newspaper, Halapid (The Torch).

Alas, political winds were changing. Portugal soon came under the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, and the church regained much of its pre-Republic power. The man seeking to revitalize the Jewish community became an anathema. Using “evidence” gained from private reports (by noted antagonists of Barros Basto) and manipulative questioning, the church managed to portray Barros Basto as a “degenerate,” mostly based on his performance of brit milah (circumcision) on grown ups and youths. His reputation was so besmirched that the military stripped him of his commission (captain) that he had earned fighting in World War I. Barros Basto became a persona non grata and was shunned. His marrano revival movement soon disintegrated. He died a broken man in 1961. Although petitioned by his wife, and later his daughter, it took the municipal government of Porto until 2012, in response to a petition from his granddaughter, for Barros Basto to be declared innocent of all charges and have his commission reinstated.

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