In the 1920s, Captain Artur Barros Basto, a Portuguese war hero, helped found his country’s first Jewish community in 400 years, but was later stripped of his ranks and forced into near penury due to his religion. Now this historical wrong may be set right.
It is a secret that has accompanied me for as long as I can remember: the secret of the Portuguese Dreyfus. But who even dreamed that this secret would now be the subject of a political disagreement in the Lisbon parliament, after 75 years and three generations of campaigns to clear his name.
I was born and raised in Porto, northern Portugal. One of the most significant places in the lives of the local Jews was the neighborhood synagogue, impressive and grand, but nearly empty. This is the Makor Haim Synagogue, one of the most beautiful in Europe. It was built in the 1930s by a man whose name was always mentioned in a lowered voice, to make sure nobody heard. This was Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, also known by his Hebrew name Abraham Israel Ben-Rosh, who had always aroused my curiosity.
Whenever I would ask about him, I would be told only that he was a man of vision, that he was born in 1887, and that he was descended from Marranos (Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity as a result of the Inquisition, but often secretly maintained Jewish traditions ). Barros Basto was a World War I hero who fought in Belgium. Before that he had belonged to the group that toppled the monarchy in Portugal and founded the republic in 1910, when he himself raised the flag of the new government. The republic was critical of the Church and carefully guarded religious freedom.
In the 1920s Barros Basto learned from his grandfather that he had Jewish roots. In the light of the new religious freedom in Portugal, he decided to return to his forefathers’ faith, and went to Tangier, Morocco, to convert. The rabbis at the local rabbinical court were surprised to learn that there were Marranos living in Portugal, and due to their objection to conversion, they tried to put Barros Basto to the test by suggesting he convert in Algeria. The officer replied that he would not leave without completing the process, which he believed was merely a technicality since he felt like a Jew; indeed, he was eventually converted in Tangier.
When he got back to his homeland he set about establishing a Jewish congregation for the first time in 400 years – the first since the expulsion of Jews from Portugal. He built and founded a yeshiva, a community newspaper called Halapid, and our synagogue, Makor Haim.
Discovery in the basement
In 1972, when I was preparing for my bar mitzvah, I asked for more information about Barros Basto. When all anyone agreed to tell me was that “he met a bitter end and was defamed,” I decided to descend into the basement of the synagogue that he built, where I found piles of old issues of Halapid.
Thus I learned about the community of Marranos who, nearly a century ago, had heard about Barros Basto – nicknamed “the prophet officer” – and began streaming to the place. “We too are Jews, even though our family converted to Christianity following the expulsion from Portugal in 1497,” they told him. Hundreds of people told him how for many years they had practiced their Judaism clandestinely.