Portugal Jewish Heritage

The neighborhood of Belém was chosen as the place for the future Lisbon Jewish Museum. Named “Tikvá”, or “Hope” in Hebrew, the building will face the Tejo river. The goal is to display the more than 2000 years of Portugal jewish heritage.

The capital’s mayor, Fernando Medina, considers the Museum a starting point “to show ourselves more fully as a community”. And a good way to show the world the shared history of Portugal and its Sephardic legacy.

A new memorial to the Jewish people will be created in Largo de São Miguel, in Alfama. That is close to the oldest Jewry of Lisbon, dated from the Middle Ages. Both places will open to visitors in 2024.

In the meantime, and besides the historical turmoil that affected dramatically the community, it is still possible to see signs of the Jewish presence and culture all over the country. These are the top places and experiences of the Portugal Jewish Heritage.

The villages of “Marranos” or Crypto Jews

In the year 1496, during the rule of King Manuel I, the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Portugal obliged them to convert to Catholicism and become the so called “New Christians” or “Conversos”.

The ones that did not accept forced conversion had two choices: leave the country or keep their faith in secret. That is when they left the big cities – where the Inquisition was always lurking. They headed for the small villages. Some of those places were near the border with Spain, forming the “Marranos” or “Crypto Jews” communities. Hiding their religion, sometimes even pretending to be catholics, but surviving. Up until the middle of the XX century, some of them were not willing to talk to strangers, in fear of what might happen.

Today, in places like Trancoso, Belmonte, Sabugal, Vilar Formoso and Castelo de Vide the former Jewish quarters and the old and hidden synagogues are preserved and valued. You can cross streets with names like Rua Nova (New Street), Rua da Judiaria (Jewry Street) or Rua da Estrela (Star Steet). There, symbolic marks and inscriptions craved on the facades and thresholds makes you travel back in time.

The jewerys in the big cities

Throughout the times, in the larger Portuguese urban areas, the Sephardic communities were congregated in Jewerys. For political and religious control and their own protection. These are some cities with the best preserved and visitable Jewerys:

Lisbon

Évora

Tomar

Bragança

Guarda

Covilhã

Castelo Branco

The Portuguese “Schindler”

In June of 1940, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul-general in the French city of Bordeaux. In defiance of his government orders, he issued visas that allowed thousands of refugees. In fact, many of them where Jewish. As a result, they ere able to cross the border with Spain, in the direction of Portugal, and escape the Nazis.

For his actions, Sousa Mendes was dismissed from the Foreign Office and left destitute and unable to support his large family. He passed in 1954 and not until 1988 did the country grant him total rehabilitation. On October 18, 1966, Yad Vashem recognized Aristides de Sousa Mendes as Righteous Among the Nations.

If you visit the village of Cabanas de Viriato (municipality of Carregal do Sal, district of Viseu) it is possible to visit Sousa Mendes’s family home. The “Casa do Passal” will became a museum, dedicated to the diplomat that is named by many “The Portuguese Schindler”.

Other names that will be featured in the institution are the Portuguese ambassadors in Budapest during World War II Carlos Sampaio Garrido and Albert Teixeira Branquinho; José Brito Mendes, a Portuguese  factory worker living in Paris that adopted a jewish baby headed for Auschwitz; and also the catholic priest Joaquim Carreira that, stationed in Rome during the Nazi occupation, hid and saved several Jewish families. All of them are also Righteous Among the Nations.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *