Home World News The saga of the Jews of Portugal between departure and return

The saga of the Jews of Portugal between departure and return


Hidden for centuries, they resisted. In the small town of Belmonte, homeland of Pedro Álvares Cabral, discoverer of Brazil, surrounded by mountains in the district of Castelo Branco, not far from the Spanish border, the nine-branch Hanukkah candlestick cohabits singularly in the main square with a multitude of crosses, statues and churches. Witness to the presence within the population of “Crypto-Jews” Where “marranos”according to the name most often used in Spain.

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We must go back to the 15th century. The breath of the Inquisition coming from the Iberian neighbor also sweeps Portugal. King Manuel Ier, which had always recognized the existence of Portuguese Jews, aligns itself with the positions of the couple Isabella the Catholic and Ferdinand of Aragon, forcing hundreds of Jewish families to convert or flee. A small minority of them, however, remain in these mountains.

The key role of a Polish engineer

They melt into the population, taking care not to attract attention, and convert to Catholicism, with baptisms, marriages and burials in the church. But, in the secrecy of homes, behind closed doors, worship rites continue to be practiced during the Shabbat, Hanukkah or Passover celebrations.

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In 1917, a Polish engineer, Samuel Schwarz, sent to Portugal by his French company to operate tungsten and tin mines, discovered the presence, more than four hundred years after their forced conversion, of Jews in Portugal. “He was in Belmonte and was looking to buy tools for the miners. He asks the population and they advise him not to go to a shop which, he is told, is run by Jews.says his grandson João.

Concealment techniques

This reflection, far from discouraging him, excites his curiosity. Of Jewish origin himself, he discovers that certain inhabitants still perpetuate the rites of Judaism in their own way. In 1925, he wrote the first book devoted to them: Os cristãos novos em Portugal no século XX (“The New Christians in Portugal in the Twentieth Century”).

He paints a portrait of these Marrano communities dispersed in about thirty villages, in the regions of Beira and Trás-os-Montes: their rites and their practices, the techniques of dissimulation of Judaism, the culinary customs… He also transcribes their prayers, thus laying the groundwork for modern research on Marranism. Having become a Portuguese citizen, Samuel Schwarz is today one of the experts on the history of the Sephardim (Jews from the Iberian Peninsula) in Europe (1).

With the revolution, they come out of anonymity

In the 20th century, under the Salazar dictatorship, families continue to keep a low profile. In 1974, with the Carnation Revolution, the Jews finally emerged from anonymity and asked for financial aid from Israel. In 1988-1989, they were recognized as Jews by the Jewish state and the first Jewish wedding for almost five hundred years was celebrated in Belmonte in 1989.

João Diogo, a tall man with a beret wedged on his head, is the vice-president of the Jewish community of Belmonte. As he shows the Beit Elihiu Synagogue, built on land purchased with funds from the Jewish community of several countries and inaugurated in 1996, he cannot shake a certain bad mood. First, against the Jews of the village who, he says, “prefer to make aliyah in Israel rather than stay in Portugal”. Two of his sons are gone, and the third is preparing for it. “There is no work for young people here”he laments.

A country of emigration

Factories in the city, many of which were owned by Jewish families, closed. Twenty years ago, Carla Martyns worked in one of them. “We made pants.I lived in a small nearby village and during the week we took the bus to work in Belmonte. » She also left the country. Belmonte is no exception to the general trend which still makes Portugal today a country of emigration.

At 71, João Diogo sees with concern the melting of his community, and the possibilities of marriage for young people. There would be no more than forty Jews in Belmonte. “For several centuries we have succeeded in safeguarding our community despite the dangers! Who will ensure its survival today? » he asks. His wrath is also directed against the municipality: “She does not help us enough financially. However, you have to pay Rabbi Elia Mordehai, who came from Morocco. It is costing us dearly”.

A paradoxical situation

Paulo Borralhinho, vice-president of the town hall, met at the exit of the museum of Judaism of Belmonte, does not share this opinion. “The town hall has always helped them through an association like there are others in the city. João Diogo would like us to give more but we already give a lot and they are not the only ones. In Portugal, he adds, the Church pays for the priests, Israel should help them finance their rabbi, but it gives them nothing». Which confirms, sorry, João Diogo.

The saga of the Jews of Portugal between departure and return

The situation is all the more paradoxical since, parallel to the decline of the “crypto-Jews” of Belmonte, Portugal has undertaken to promote the return of the descendants of the Jews expelled under the Inquisition. In 2013, Maria de Belém Roseira, deputy of the Portuguese Socialist Party, proposed a bill for the acquisition of the “nationality by birth” for the descendants of Sephardic Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula from the 15th century. “I considered it a duty for my country to open the way of return to the descendants of those who had been thrown out, she says. If we cannot heal the wounds of history, we can at least mend them. » In 2015, the law was passed unanimously by Parliament.

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In practice, the Jewish communities of Lisbon and Porto are responsible for analyzing the documents collected by families applying for naturalization. “We work with genealogists, historians who must authenticate the documents provided by the families”, explains Esther Mucznik, former vice-president of the Jewish community of Lisbon.

The Abramovich Affair

It was in Porto that the Jewish community issued the certificate attesting to the Sephardic Jewish ancestry of Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and wealthy owner of the very famous Chelsea football club. Following which the Portuguese state granted him naturalization in April 2021.

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Reports in the Portuguese press have suggested that Roman Abramovich, also a holder of British and Israeli nationalities, now targeted by sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, could have benefited from preferential treatment. The General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic has since announced “the opening of an investigation”with which the Lisbon Public Prosecutor’s Office was responsible.

30,000 descendants naturalized since 2015

“When the State entrusted us with the task of certifying the documents attesting to the Sephardic origin of the descendants of the Jews expelled during the Inquisition, recalls Esther Mucznik, I asked the Minister of Justice: “Do you trust our judgement?” He replied: “We are bound by a pact of trust.” »

Which confidence could be shaken by the Abramovich affair, when the reparations law has already allowed the naturalization, since 2015, of more than 30,000 descendants of Sephardim.


A generous law of return

On more than 86,000 requests from descendants of Sephardim since 2015, more than 30,000 have been naturalized in Portugal.

In 2020, more than 34,000 naturalization applications were received from descendants of Sephardic Jews. Only 163 have been rejected, while just over 13,000 people are still awaiting a decision.

According to the Portuguese Ministry of Justice, the vast majority of certifications are granted by the Israelite community of Porto which, until December 31, 2020, was processing 88.5% of requests. Only 11.5% of certifications are granted by the Israelite community of Lisbon.

According to figures published by the Ministry of Justice, two-thirds of naturalization applications come from Israel (69.12%), Turkey (15.09%), Brazil (7.47%), Argentina (2.53%), Morocco (1 .31%) and the United Arab Emirates (1.06%).

Obtaining naturalization is not conditioned by the mastery of the Portuguese language, nor the residence in Portugal.

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