A hundred years ago, a Catholic soldier converted to Judaism. He had a vision to revive the Jewish community of Porto, Portugal.
By Laurence Julius
Jews first came to Porto in Roman times, around 2,000 years ago. They prospered for 1,500 years until they were expelled in 1496 by the Portuguese Inquisition.
Many Spanish Jews had fled to Portugal after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. On entry, they were forced to pay a tax of eight gold cruzados. Those who could not pay were enslaved.
Historical records of the period are full of familiar names from Holland Park and Lauderdale Road in London: Garson, Habib, Harari, Leon, Medina, Nahmias, Obadia, Safran, Sasson and Toledano, to name a few.
Over 300 years later, Jews returned to Porto from the communities of North Africa. Records show there was a small Sephardi community in Porto in 1867. More familiar names appear, like Azulay, Amzalag, Benhanon, Cohen and Ohayon.
At the turn of the 20th century, there was an influx of Ashkenazi Jews from across Eastern Europe.
The community was reinvigorated by Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto, a former soldier who converted to Judaism in Tangier in 1920. His grandfather, on his death bed, had told him of his Jewish roots. Under Basto’s leadership, the community started the Jewish Community of Porto (CIP) in 1923. It focused on five issues: Hospitals, Jewish instruction, Jewish observance, workers’ rights and cemeteries.
In 1926, Basto joined with the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in London in a campaign to convert thousands of Marranos across Portugal to Judaism.
In 1929, they began construction of the magnificent Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue. It was completed in 1938, the last major synagogue built before World War II.
During the war, Basto helped hundreds of Jews escape the Holocaust. His synagogue is now home to all—Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Orthodox and Progressive.
Across the road from the synagogue is a small museum that tells the story of the community. There is a room upstairs that chronologically documents all the antisemitic attacks on the community. One panel is devoted to the “passport blood libel” of 2022.
Jews with Spanish or Portuguese roots are eligible to claim Portuguese nationality. In March 2022, Rabbi Daniel Litvak of the Porto community was accused of helping Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich illegally obtain a Portuguese passport. In Oct. 2022, the Lisbon Court of Appeal ruled that the case was “without factual basis.” The Court also criticized the Public Prosecutor’s Office, saying the harsh restrictions placed on Rabbi Litvak were based “on nothing.”
The Porto community’s President Gabriel Senderowicz said the entire affair amounted to antisemitic persecution by the state.
“This case, which was presented to the world as the sale of passports by a rabbinate who acted for money, was provoked by pro-Palestinian figures, and attacks Jewish Israelis, wealthy Jews and all significant Jewish realities connected with Portugal,” he said.
During the affair, the community was subject to a campaign of state, media and individual hate. There were searches and burglaries of Jewish institutions, demonization of the community and individuals by the media, and protesting crowds. Regrettably, this shows the degree to which antisemitism can be aroused in a liberal, sophisticated European country.
One hundred meters away from the museum stands another museum dedicated to the Holocaust, which leaves a lasting impression on all who visit.
As you enter the museum, passing a menorah surrounded by barbed wire, you go into a replica of a camp—through the gates, through a dormitory with high impact photographs and then into a hall that explains the history of the dehumanization of the Jews and their extermination. The museum may be small, but it is a very well-designed, world-class institution and fulfills its purpose. It is free for all to visit.
The Holocaust museum also has a plaque in honor of the 850,000 Jews who were expelled or forced to flee Arab and Muslim countries following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 —a tragedy that is too often forgotten.
Sadly, there was a highly visible police presence around all the Jewish sites, just like here in London. It was a sad reflection of the times.
I was privileged to be hosted by the vibrant Porto Jewish community at this year’s European Jewish Association conference.
I would like to thank the community of Porto for being superb hosts and in particular Gabriel Senderowicz and Michael Rothwell. The community is in good health, 1,000-strong with thriving synagogues, a community center, kosher restaurants and a restored cemetery. It proudly displays the amazing transformation that has taken place over the last century, bringing the vision of Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto to life.
You can watch the remarkable story of Captain Barros Basto and the re-establishment of the Jewish Community of Porto in “Sefarad: The Movie.”
Laurence Julius is vice chairman of the National Jewish Assembly in the U.K., a trustee of JNF UK, Harif and the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Holland Park.
This article was published by JNS.