This Day in Jewish History

1887: A Soldier Who Revived Judaism in North Portugal Is Born

Only to find himself outcast and castigated by wider society, and unprotected by his brethren.

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December 18, 1887, is the date of birth of Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, the man who singlehandedly revived the dormant Jewish community of northern Portugal after discovering in his childhood that his own family was descended from New Christians.

Artur Carlos de Barros Basto was born in Amarante, Portugal, not far from Porto, the country’s second-biggest city, on its northern coast. He was raised as a Catholic, and supposedly learned of his family’s Jewish roots only from his grandfather, when the older man was dying.

This, followed by the 1904 dedication of a new synagogue in Lisbon, sparked Barros Basto’s intense interest in Judaism.

Barros Basto entered the Portuguese armed forces, and while he was in officers training, in Lisbon, he attempted to join Sha’arei Tikva, the new synagogue there. However, he found his efforts rebuffed. He had no choice but to pursue his Jewish education on his own, and eventually underwent conversion to Judaism in Tangiers, Morocco. That came after participation in Portugal’s Republican revolution in 1910, in which Barros Basto raised the Republican flag over Porto. He also served as a lieutenant on the Western Front during World War I.

After his conversion, Barros Basto – who took on the Hebrew name of Abraham Israel ben Rosh – returned to Portugal and married Lea Israel Montero Azankot, from a prosperous Jewish family from Lisbon. The couple moved back to Porto in 1921, where Artur began his one-man campaign to revive the Jewish community.

In 1923, he officially registered that community with the government; in 1927, he began a Jewish magazine, Halapid, which he edited until 1958; and in 1929, he established a yeshiva in the city and began raising funds for construction of a synagogue. With donations from the Kadoorie family, of Hong Kong, and Edmond de Rothschild, of France, the grand new Kadoorie-Mekor Hayim Synagogue was inaugurated in 1938 – the same year as the pogroms of Kristallnacht hit the Jews of Germany.

Saving German Jews

These institutions were intended to serve the Jews who began to emerge from the woodwork. Barros Basto began traveling to other provinces in the north, looking for more descendants of Jews who had converted in the wake of the Portuguese Inquisition, in the 16th century.

He also helped bring thousands of German Jews to Porto during the 1930s, saving them from certain death in the Holocaust. To help with their needs, Barros Basto oversaw the opening of an office of the Joint Distribution Committee, and even initiated the opening of an Ashkenazi synagogue in the city to accommodate them.

Barros Basto’s activism, however, brought the scrutiny of the conservative, dictatorial regime of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which also came to power in the 1930s. First, he was given army assignments that sent him increasingly further from Porto, and then the yeshiva was shut down.

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Finally, in 1937, he was tried in a military court for immoral acts, namely the circumcisions that had been performed on students at the yeshiva. He was convicted and drummed out of the army.

Unfortunately, the far-from-established Jewish community of Porto did not rally to his support.

Barros Basto died on March 8, 1961, hoping until his last day for exoneration. It took another half-century for it to come, however.

On February 29, 2012, after lengthy lobbying by both his daughter and granddaughter, Barros Basto was posthumously reinstated to the army by a parliamentary commission, which acknowledged that his dismissal had been motivated by anti-Semitism.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen