Decades too late, the Portuguese government this year overturned the anti-Semitism inspired conviction of an Alfred Dreyfus-like unsung hero, finally reinstating his good name, according to a JTA report.
Writer Kevin Zdiara compares what happened in Portugal to Artur Carlos de Barros Basto in 1937 to the wrongful 1894 treason conviction of Capt. Dreyfus by an anti-Semitic French military court.
The main difference, he notes, is that unlike for Dreyfus, there was no Emile Zola to come publically to Barros Basto’s defense. So, instead of the 10 years it took to rectify the Dreyfus injustice, Barros Basto’s name was not cleared for more than six decades. And unlike Dreyfus, few have ever heard of him or are ever likely to.
But, his story is a fascinating one.
Born in 1887, Barros Basto learned from his grandfather at age nine that the family was among the so-called “cristãos novos” – Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity during the 15th century’s Inquisition, but who secretly remained Jews.
Barros Basto grew up in the northern Portuguese city of Porto, where he attended the military academy, according to the story.
“As a young man he fought in the revolution that established Portugal’s First Republic in 1910; he was the first person to raise the flag of the new republic in Porto’s town square. During World War I, he served as a lieutenant, commanding the Portuguese Corps. He was awarded the War Cross for bravery,” Zdiara writes.
After the war, he started looking into his Jewish roots; studied Judaism and Hebrew and traveled to Morocco to be ritually converted back. After his return to Lisbon he married the daughter of a wealthy Jewish community member.
In 1921, Barros Basto and his wife returned to Porto, “Where he began to work tirelessly to build a Jewish community. In 1923 he officially registered the Jewish community of Porto. He founded the Jewish magazine Há-Lapid, which he published from 1927 to 1958. In 1929 he established Porto’s Yeshiva Rosh Pinna. He planned and oversaw the building of the city’s Mekor Haim synagogue. Five hundred years after the Portuguese Inquisition had destroyed Jewish life in Porto, Barros Basto almost single-handedly rebuilt a small Jewish community there,” Zdiara writes.
Barros Basto built Mekor Haim with help from France’s Baron Edmond de Rothschild and the Sephardi family Kadoorie, of Hong Kong, he writes. Among the guests at the synagogue’s inauguration on January 6, 1938 were representatives from the Jewish communities of London and Berlin and Israël Levy, the chief rabbi of France. Levy, in his speech at the event, noted that Barros Basto had “succeeded in creating an élan of sympathy and enthusiasm in all the countries of the Diaspora.”
So, in the year in which German synagogues were vandalized and destroyed on Kristallnacht, a new Jewish house of worship opened its doors in Portugal, Zdiara notes.
Barros Basto focused on bringing back to Judaism the “cristãos novos,” but also on saving Jews from all over Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, according to the story.
“He was, as the German scholar Michael Studemund-Halévy called him, the ‘apostle of the refugees’ and personally involved in the rescue of hundreds… from Germany, Austria, France, Poland and many other countries” the writer notes.
When anti-Semitism grew more violent and powerful in Germany, Barros Basto helped Jews escape “to the safe haven of Porto.” And as the leader of the Jewish community there, he made sure those refugees were integrated into the Sephardic Jewish community… and he also helped to rent space for an Ashkenazi synagogue in Porto, the story notes.
“During World War II it was Barros Basto who established a local chapter of the Joint Distribution Committee in Porto to organize humanitarian support for the thousands of Jewish refugees dwelling in Porto and in small villages close-by,” Zdiara writes.
But these activities brought him to the attention of Portuguese authorities, which, under António Salazar’s Catholic Church-tied dictatorship made him the target of the Portuguese secret police. Barros Basto was accused of sexually harassing some of his yeshiva students, causing the school’s immediate shutdown.
Then, in 1937 he was tried before a military court and found guilty of having committed “immoral acts” – the main accusation being the performance of circumcisions on his yeshiva students (a suggestion obviously ridiculous to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Jewish customs) – and therefore lacking the “moral capacity” to serve in the Portuguese army. Barros Basto was stripped of his military ranks, his pension, his health care, his right to wear his uniform, and he was ostracized and forced to resign from his posts in the Jewish community he had helped to build, the story notes.
No one came to Barros Basto’s defense, Zdiara writes.
“To the contrary, the conviction sent shock waves through the small Portuguese Jewish community and led to emigration and a steady decline,” he says.
“Until his death in 1961 Barros Basto tried everything to be reinstated into the army but failed and died as a bitter man,” the story says. Even after the dictatorship fell in 1974, the Barros Basto family was unable to get a retrial. However, the author says, his daughter and granddaughter never gave up, and “in February 2012 a parliamentary commission unanimously adopted a report which recognized the anti-Semitic background of the ruling and called for a rehabilitation of Barros Basto.”
Then, at the end of July 2012, the Portuguese parliament officially reinstated Barros Basto into the army.
I thought you’d want to know.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here