Descendants of the 'Portuguese Dreyfus' Still Waiting for Justice

Judy Maltz
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Artur Carlos de Barros Basto.Credit: Wikipedia
Judy Maltz

In the Jewish community of Porto, it is known as the “Portuguese Dreyfus” case. Alfred Dreyfus, the man whose plight inspired Theodor Herzl to dream of a Jewish state, was a French Jewish army officer who was wrongly convicted of treason by an anti-Semitic military court. Artur Carlos de Barros Basto was a high-ranking officer who was kicked out of the Portuguese army more than 40 years later for being too openly Jewish.

Like Dreyfus, Barros Basto was eventually exonerated. But events of recent weeks have members of the Jewish community in this city in northwest Portugal wondering whether they were too quick to declare the case closed and to believe that old prejudices had died.

Barros Basto, a founder of Porto’s revived Jewish community, was the son of a Catholic mother and a Crypto-Jewish father (a descendant of Jews forced to convert to Christianity centuries earlier, also known as Marranos or Anusim). Upon discovering his Jewish roots, he underwent a conversion in Morocco. After returning to Porto, he married a Jewish woman and began to encourage other descendants of forced converts to return to Judaism.

A decorated soldier, Barros Basto fought in World War I but was thrown out of the army in 1937, at the rank of captain, for participating in circumcision ceremonies of his students. He was also accused of having sex with male students. He died in 1961, before his name was cleared.

After Portugal became a democracy in 1974, hundreds of soldiers who had been dishonorably discharged from the army under previous regimes were reinstated and received financial compensation, many of them posthumously. The only one not reinstated was Barros Basto, who also happened to be the only Jew.

Led by Barros Basto’s heirs, Porto’s Jewish community launched a campaign to restore his reputation and have him reinstated into the army as a colonel, the rank he should have reached by retirement.

A half-century after his death, in February 2012, Portugal’s parliament unanimously passed a resolution exonerating Barros Basto.

The resolution noted that Barros Basto had been “separated from the army due to a generic climate of animosity toward him, motivated by the fact that he was Jewish, not hiding it, and, on the contrary, showing an energetic proselytism converting Portuguese Marrano Jews and their descendants.” The resolution was widely applauded in the Jewish world.

In the wake of the resolution, Portugal’s Defense Ministry was supposed to carry out Barros Basto’s formal reinstatement, including the presentation to his family of an official document certifying the promotion. Like the relatives of others who had been reinstated, Barros Basto’s heirs were also supposed to receive compensation from the defense ministry for the wages that were withheld from him after his dishonorable discharge.

But the Defense Ministry never followed up with the formal reinstatement. Three years after he was declared “morally rehabilitated,” several members of the Portuguese parliament drafted a special law that would have forced the Defense Ministry to reinstate him. It was scheduled to come up for a vote three weeks ago.

There was one hitch, though: The new law stipulated that the army was not required to pay compensation to the Barros Basto family.

In a letter sent to parliament before the scheduled vote, the leaders of the Jewish community deemed the new law unacceptable. “To violate the general law of the land, applicable to all cases of reintegration, with a special law that excludes a Jew and his family, is something deplorable and scandalous,” they wrote. “The reintegration of Barros Basto in the army does not depend on any law of parliament, but surely depends on the defense minister, who, if he genuinely wants to, can put an end to the Portuguese Dreyfus case.”

The legislation was subsequently withdrawn.

Isabel Lopes, the granddaughter of Barros Basto and the current vice president of the Porto Jewish community, said she believes her grandfather was singled out for discriminatory treatment because he was a Jew.

“In 1974, the dictatorship ended in Portugal and the government at that time authorized the army to reintegrate all the military people who had been unjustly expelled,” she told Haaretz.

“There was only one exception, and that was my grandfather. We are now in 2015. It is time that he is reintegrated like all the other military personnel. The one difference between him and the others is that he was a Jew.” She said the Defense Ministry has not responded to repeated requests by the family to discuss the matter.

The Portuguese Defense Ministry did not respond to a request by Haaretz to comment on the affair.

The Anti-Defamation League, which has been following the case for years, expressed disappointment with the latest developments, after it, too, had mistakenly believed that the case was resolved.

“We have been encouraging the Portuguese government to take the necessary steps to reintegrate Barros Basto into the Portuguese army appropriately and to compensate his heirs,” Andrew Srulevitch, the ADL’s director of European affairs, said.

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