The Secrets of Jewish Lisbon

by Smadar Bar-Akiva

The loads of tourists roaming through the sunny streets of Lisbon hardly know that the quaint neighborhoods of Alfama, Chiado and Baxia were once home to approximately 200,000 Jews, 25% of Lisbon’s citizens. The time was the 15th Century when Jews enjoyed a Golden Age of success and integration, taking part in Portugal’s era of world discoveries and expansions. That renaissance was brutally quenched by the Portuguese Inquisition, following the Spanish one and known to be even more brutal.

Then, if you stop for a cup of coffee at the busy Chiado pedestrian mall you may not know that one of the coffee shops was once a meeting point for Jews fleeing Europe at the time of World War II. Ten thousand of them were saved thanks to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who was a Protugese diplomat in Bordeaux that defied his superiors and issued visas to Jews and non Jews. He was later dismissed for disobedience and died impoverished. For his efforts, he was recognized by Yad VaShem as a Righteous Gentile, Portugal’s only honoree.

During the second part of the war, Portugal agreed to give entry visas to those coming via rescue operations, on the condition that Portugal would only be used as a transit point. More than 100,000 Jews and refugees were able to flee Nazi Germany into freedom via Lisbon. All of Portugal’s Jews and Jewish refugees living there survived the war.

The elders of the community that we met still remember the JDC office that opened to help Jews during this chaotic transfer and arranged for them ships that will take them to North and South America. Although small, the local Jewish community welcomed the refugees and with local support helped them find accommodation and food during their stay.

But perhaps the most well kept secret is that of today’s Jewish community. With only 300 registered members (not families,) this small Jewish community is ardent to preserve Jewish life. Jose Carp, President of the Jewish community of Lisbon, describes how 10 years ago with the help of JDC Europe, this small community hired a full time professional from Brazil, Marcos Prist, who helped develop a Jewish Community Center to augment the already existing synagogue. A Maccabi club was opened and Jews of all ages now come every Sunday for recreational and cultural activities. Marcos describes a busy Jewish community with many offerings throughout the year and especially during holidays and vacations.

What are their future challenges? For Jose and Marcos the main challenge is Portugal’s current economic crisis which may encourage young people to seek their future elsewhere. Other than that, the Jewish community is active and growing, with more people finding a place to pursue their Jewish heritage and communal interests.

As we sit around Seder tables in different parts of the world, the Jews of Lisbon will also commemorate the grave day of Passover 1497 when Jewish parents were ordered to take their children, between the ages of four and fourteen, to Lisbon. Upon arrival, the parents were informed that their children were going to be taken away from them and were to be given to Catholic families to be raised as good Catholics. Children were literally torn from their parents and others were smothered, some parents chose to kill themselves and their kids rather than be separated. After awhile, some parents agreed to be baptized, along with their children, while others succumbed and handed over their babies.

Then, for hundreds of years, those hidden Jews of Portugal and Spain, the Marranos (or converses, as they were known) secretly passed on their customs from generation to generation. Often, those traditions were nothing more that the lighting of two candles on Friday night or routinely washing their hands in the morning, with no knowledge of the reason why. Despite the Inquisition, the Marranos persisted in the practice of many Jewish customs and holidays, even the celebration of Passover. The message of slavery and redemption surely would have spoken to the hearts of the Marranos as it does to all of us today.

Smadar Bar-Akiva, is Executive Director, World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers (WCJCC) – an umbrella organization representing more than 1,100 JCCs worldwide. Last week, Smadar attended the meetings of the Board of the European Association of Jewish Community Centers in Lisbon.