Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, is known as the Unvanquished City because of its staunch resistance to Napoleon in the early 19th century. The same can be said of many of its Jews. They remained unvanquished after their forcible conversion four centuries ago, teaching their children and their children.s children never to forget their past. Symbolic of their tenacity is the city’s huge, three floor Mekor Chaim Shul. Who constructed this massive shul that has room for hundreds in a town that has only a handful of practicing Jews? It is a memorial to the heroism and determination of Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basta, a lieutenant of the Portuguese army, who is known as the Portuguese Dreyfus. Except that unlike his French counterpart, there was no happy conclusion to his story.
The Obstinate Lieutenant
Barros Basta was born in the Portuguese city of Amarante in 1887 and moved to nearby Porto when he was six. He received a Catholic upbringing, never dreaming that he was descended from a secret Marrano family.
For centuries, Marranos of Spain and Portugal had spent their lives on a very narrow bridge, living as faithful Catholics, while keeping mitzvos in secret and trying not to fall off in the process. They were so successful in passing on at least some of their traditions, that until today you can stumble upon their descendants in Amazon jungles who still light candles on Erev Shabbos.
In earlier times, Marranos even sent shailos to great poskim, asking them how to best keep mitzvos in their impossible circumstances. The Rashba”sh (Rav Shlomo ben Shimon Doron of Algier, d. 1467) writes of anusim who wanted to know whether it was possible to eat wheat based products on Pesach without incurring the penalty of koreis. They explained to him that sticking to rice and lentils for the week of Pesach would be impossible since this sort of behavior was exactly the sort of thing spies were looking out for. Neighbors might say: “You are observing their forefathers. custom of eating rice on Pesach, for in all your homes you are cooking rice.”
So the Marranos were anxious to know whether there was some way of eating a food that looked like pure chometz but was not.
In his response, the Rashba”sh, suggested four ways they could eat Pessachdik wheat products: They could bake bread kneaded not with water, but with milk, oil, or honey; they could boil the flour beforehand; they could make bread from matzah flour; or they could make flour from roasted wheat kernels.
But as the centuries rolled on, minutiae of observance were lost and many Marranos even held the Seder on the wrong night to throw potential spies off the scent. This was the fate of Barros Basta’s family. His grandfather knew almost nothing and his mother was not even Jewish. Historians claim that his grandfather told him that he was descended from a line of Jews who had gone underground since the 16th century. Due to a plunge in the family’s finances, Basta joined the military and participated in Portugal’s 1910 revolution, hoisting the revolutionary flag in his hometown of Porto.
Until then, the Church had a huge influence in the running of the state. The new republic was fiercely anti-clerical and like Napoleonic France, demanded a total separation of state and religion. Bishops and priests were fired, church properties were confiscated, and school religious education was outlawed.
The time was ripe for Jews to come out of the closet and return to their ancestral religion, but few were interested. After years of oppression it was difficult for Jews to shed themselves of the feeling that the best way to keep their noses safe was not to stick them out too far.
A Fateful Meeting
During World War I, Portugal declared war against Germany in 1916 and sent thousands of soldiers to the Western front. Barros Basta went with them as a lieutenant and this, according to historian, Howard M. Sachar, was when Barros Basta’s life turned upside down. One Friday evening, Sachar writes, Barros Basta wandered into the tent of a French liaison officer who happened to be Jewish and saw him lighting candles. When the Frenchman explained that it was a Jewish Sabbath tradition, the dim memory of his grandparents. Shabbos candles suddenly locked into focus and he returned to Portugal a man of destiny.
Determined to discover his spiritual heritage, Basta studied Judaism intensely. He afterwards converted to Judaism in Tangiers and married the daughter of a prominent Lisbon Jewish family.
Back in Porto, he created a kehillah with the town.s nucleus of Ashkenazi Jews. Like a candle in a dark room, this Jewish spark attracted Jews from hiding, and amazed at the vast army of hidden Jews, Barros Basta determined to find more of them. Traveling by horseback in his army uniform through north Portugal’s towns and villages, he spoke to Jews straight from the heart, telling them there was no longer anything to fear, for the Republican revolution of 1910 had introduced a new social order of equality and human rights. He took mohalim with him and recorded the names of those who agreed to have a bris milah in the back of his Tanach.
Thanks to great seyata dishmaya, brilliant intelligence, extreme charisma and persuasive powers, and absolute confidence that Hashem would help him against all odds, he enjoyed astounding success. Until his dying day he often cited his favorite motto, Hashem li, lo irah . Hashem is with me, I will not fear.
Within an incredibly short time, Barros Basta attracted thousands of Jews to their past. In 1926 he founded the Jewish school, Rosh Pinah, the first Jewish learning institution established in Portugal for the past four hundred years, which schooled about ninety students over the next nine years. He published a weekly paper, HaLapid, contributing articles under his Hebrew name, Avraham Ben Rosh, and in 1929 he began the construction of the magnificent Mekor Chaim Shul, inaugurating it almost a decade later in 1938, the same year that hundreds of shuls were destroyed on Kristalnacht. Funds for its construction came from all corners of the world including Amsterdam, London, New York, Hamburg, and Paris. There were plenty of Jews to fill its hundreds of seats. At his peak, Barros Basta may have had ten thousand followers. Little did he imagine that his empire was about to collapse like a house of cards.
But by the time of his passing in 1961, Basta was lonely and depressed, and his kehillah almost non-existent. Politics were working against him. Despite Portugal’s anti- Church stance since the 1910 revolution, the Church was by no means helpless, and radicals in its midst were gaining power. He was also disliked by the new rightist government headed by President Antonia Salazar, whose brutal secret police governed Portugal with an iron fist. One of the first to attack him was the local priest, Tomaz Correia da Luz Almeida, whose church lay only a few hundred feet down the road from the shul. He was angry at the rapid desertion of Jews from his church.
False libels were raised against Basta, and although a civil court and army court dropped his case in 1937 due to lack of evidence, according to historian Sachar, the damage was done. By the mid-1930s, parents had withdrawn their children from the Rosh Pina school, and Barros Basta had become persona non grata among his once devoted Marrano followers. Shocked and scared away by the battle, and fearful of the rise of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, most of his newly gained kehillah melted back among the non-Jewish populace. Then came his official downfall. The army stripped him of his army decorations and credentials in 1943. For decades, his giant shul stood empty, locked and barred; upstairs, his typewriter sat unused, and bundles of publications never got mailed.
Tragically, Basta never received a Jewish burial. He was interred next to his grandfather among his family members in the nearby town of his birth, Amarante. The Christian cemetery where he was interred is filled with