Portugal Rediscovers Hidden Jewish Culture, Honors Its 'Schindler'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

RABBI Shlomo Sabag walks through the ancient Jewish quarter of Belmonte, pointing out where Jewish houses once stood.

''Every Jewish house was 'Christianized,' symbolized by a cross carved on the door jamb,'' Rabbi Sabag says.

Nearly five centuries ago, in 1496, Portugal ordered all Jews -- an estimated 80,000 people -- to convert to Roman Catholicism or leave. A fraction fled. But many of the thousands who stayed and were forcibly converted continued to secretly practice their religion.

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Today about 2,000 conversos, or ''the converted'' -- along with about 1,500 openly declared Jews who immigrated more recently -- live in Portugal.

But the conversos in Belmonte, a town of 4,000 in northwestern Portugal, are openly practicing Judaism and have established a synagogue. And in late March, President Mario Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares paid homage to a man who saved some 30,000 people during World War II, many of them Jews.

These events may help Portugal's international standing, some Portuguese analysts say, by showing the country is waging a successful battle against intolerance.

''Belmonte's Jews feel free to practice their religion,'' says Portuguese historian David Augusto Canelo in Belmonte. ''Toleration and acceptance of other religions are a reality in today's Portugal.''

But that progress has come piecemeal. One Portuguese word for Jews is marrano, a pejorative term meaning ''pig'' or ''unclean.''

''To be a Jew, even for people in high positions, was a secret,'' says Jose Ha-Levi Domingues, a leader of the Jewish community in the nearby town of Guarda. He says conversos revealed their religious beliefs only within their own tightly knit community.

''We had no books, no rabbi, nothing at all,'' says Mr. Domingues. ''Everything our family practiced was shown by my mother.''

In the 1920s, Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto, a Portuguese Army officer of a converso family, led a renaissance of Judaism throughout the country. But dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, influenced by German anti-Semitism, cracked down on the movement in the 1930s, and Jews returned to secrecy.

Salazar was also responsible for repressing one of Portugal's national heroes. Aristides de Sousa Mendes was Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, in 1940. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were fleeing the Nazi invasion, and they sought transit visas to neutral Portugal.

Sousa Mendes defied orders and issued 30,000 visas in three nights, about one-third to Jews. He was sacked and died in disgrace. Only relatively recently, after the Army overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, did the public learn of his heroism.

Sousa Mendes's sons and daughters -- spread throughout the United States, Portugal, and Canada -- formed committees and circulated petitions seeking official recognition for their father's deeds. In 1987, President Soares visited the US to present a medal in his memory.

Last month, Soares honored Sousa Mendes in a ceremony at one of Lisbon's largest theaters. Soares also apologized for Portugal's past persecution of Jews.

Also over the past few years, the conversos of Belmonte began to establish an open Jewish community. Israeli-born Rabbi Sabag now presides over a synagogue with about 150 members.

JEWISH leader Domingues adds a note of caution, however, explaining that most conversos remain clandestine because they fear a rise in anti-Semitism. Just two months ago someone painted a swastika on his apartment door and elevator. Graffiti appeared in the town square reading, ''Death to blacks and Jews.''

But Sousa Mendes's youngest son, John Abranches, remains hopeful. He says the ceremony last month shows Portugal's progress. ''All the other Portuguese heroes conquered lands, fought, and killed,'' adds Mr. Abranches. ''My father ... saved lives. In the eyes of God, that kind of hero is better.''

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