Belmonte: The Secret Jews

Belmonte: The Secret Jews, Portugal and the State of Israel

Bangkok, Thailand

July 21, 2013

“Without Portugal, the State of Israel would not exist.”

So declared an Israeli diplomat at the Shabbat dinner we both attended here in Bangkok, 

“Without Portugal, the State of Israel would not exist.”

Are you surprised to hear this statement?  I was.

After the Friday evening prayer services, everyone who comes to Temple Beth Elisheva is invited by Rabbi Kantor and his wife and family to a attend a festive dinner . 

Between the chicken soup and the brisket, the Rabbi asks us to tell a story, or to comment on the week’s Bible portion, or to lead the group in song.  I never fail to tell a story about my travels and the Jewish community I meet along the way.

Tonight was no different from any other night.  I decided to give an account of my weekend visit to the hillside town of Belmonte, Portugal. (pop 7600).  

The story of Belmonte is a remote but significant example of the inextinguishable spirit of Judaism that has survived for more than 5000 years.  For it was here, in 1496, that the Jewish community of Belmonte made a choice.   Instead of leaving Portugal because of the expulsion order of the king, they chose to remain.  But to remain as Jews would have been be a fatal mistake. 

Even after many centuries of habitation (in Belmonte since the 12th Century) Jews were no longer welcome anywhere in Iberia.  They faced repression, imprisonment and much worse.   To remain in Portugal meant death or conversion.

The Jews of Belmonte converted and outwardly became ordinary members of the local Christian community.  But, and this is a big “but,” they continued to practice their religion in secret.

How long could this secret remain a secret?  Five years?  Ten? Fifty years? 

Astonishing!  A miracle really.  The Jews of Belmonte maintained their secret practice of Judaism for five hundred years!   Marriages were arranged within the community and all outward appearance of their faith was hidden.   For five hundred years!

In 1917, Samuel Schwartz, a Polish Jewish mining engineer, “discovered” the Jews of Belmonte.  But it was not until 1970, after the death of the unsympathetic dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar that the community identified itself.  They are known by a various names – Marranos, Conversos, Crypto Jews, Belmonte Jews.

Was it an “accident” that I arrived in Belmonte on Friday afternoon, just before the Jewish Sabbath?  I followed the signs to Beit Eliahu, the synagogue that was built in 1996. The doors were open to all and I participated in the Friday evening prayers. 

I returned the following morning for the Sabbath services that were conducted in the Sephardic tradition.  The Spanish-speaking Rabbi, a native of Chile, was curious so I introduced myself and we had a brief conversation.

I concluded my story to the Friday dinner group in Bangkok:

“Regardless of the “accident” or the “force” guiding me to Belmonte, I felt humble and honored to be among the children and the adults and the descendents of a Jewish Community that made a choice and survived, despite the hardships and dangers.”

Minutes later, in response to my story, the Israeli diplomat rose to speak.  He agreed with me that the history of the Jews in Portugal contained many tragic elements.  But, he added, “Without Portugal, the State of Israel would not exist.”

Here is the story:

In 1973, the State of Israel was under attack.  The armed forces of Egypt and Syria launched the surprise Yom Kippur War against Israeli occupied Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights.  At first, the Israeli army was forced to retreat.  Major cities in Israel were vulnerable.  But after a few days, the invaders were pushed back and the security borders were reestablished.

One of the key factors for success, as the diplomat related, was that, at a critical moment, “Portugal was the only country, the only country, that granted landing rights to the American airlift carrying supplies to Israel.”   The Israeli diplomat insisted: “Without Portugal, the State of Israel would not exist.”

Today, in Portugal, Jews are free to practice their faith without fear, without restraint.  And unlike many places I have visited, no security barriers or armed guards surround their places of worship. 

Yes, in every country, in every region of the world, “history” is a “mixture.”  But there are moments, aren’t there?, sometimes very lengthy moments, when miracles do occur..………………………………………………………………………

I was also privileged to visit the attractive mid-Fifteenth Century Beit Hatfutson Synagogue and Jewish Museum Abraão Zacuto in the small city of Tomar.  The synagogue is the best preserved medieval synagogue in Portugal.

Funds for the restoration of the synagogue were provided by the one and the same Samuel Schwartz who “discovered” the secret Belmonte Jews while on his honeymoon in Portugal. 

World events precluded his return to his home in Poland.  Schwartz remained in Portugal where he became an honored scholar and citizen.

Tell me my friends, was it an “accident” that Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz chose Portugal for their honeymoon?   

Jewish presence in Portugal can be documented back to the Fifth Century.  It is even likely that Jews came to Portugal and Spain with the Romans, and possibly before that.

Here is the story of yet another miracle:

The Holocaust Memorial in Israel, Yad Vashem, designated and honored Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat, as a person “Righteous Among the Nations.” 


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