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The Portuguese Dreyfus

In 1894, the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly convicted of treason by an anti-Semitic French military court.  It took 10 years before that injustice was rectified.  The world remembers Dreyfus.  It should also remember the Jewish military officer Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, wrongly convicted by an anti-Semitic Portuguese military court in 1937.  The injustice suffered by Barros Basto took much longer to correct.  The Portuguese government overturned his conviction only this year.

Barros Basto was born into a Christian family in 1887.  When he was nine, his grandfather told him that the family belonged to the so-called “cristãos novos,” Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 15th century but secretly adhered to Judaism.  Barros Basto grew up in Porto, in northern Portugal, where he attended the military academy.  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.

When he returned from the war, his interest in his Jewish roots grew.  On his own, he began to study Judaism and the Hebrew language.  There was no Jewish community in Porto, and the small Jewish community of Lisbon rejected him as an outsider.  He had to travel to Morocco to undergo his formal ritual conversion to Judaism.  When he returned to Lisbon after he converted, however, he found acceptance; he married Lea Azancot, the daughter of a wealthy member of the community.

In 1921, Barros Basto returned with his wife 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.

Barros Basto built Mekor Haim by convincing Baron Edmond de Rothshild of France to purchase land for the synagogue and persuading the wealthy Sephardi family Kadoorie, of Hong Kong, to finance the construction.  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.” In the year in which German synagogues were vandalized and destroyed on Kristallnacht, a new Jewish house of worship opened its doors in Portugal.

Barros Basto considered one of his most important missions to bring back the “cristãos novos” from the rural areas of Portugal to Judaism.  But his concern for Jews and Jewish life was never limited to Portugal alone. An aspect which has often been overlooked were his efforts to safe Jews from all over Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  He was, as the German scholar Michael Studemund-Halévy called him, the “apostle of the refugees” and personally involved in the rescue of hundreds of refugees from Germany, Austria, France, Poland and many other countries.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s he had established a European wide network of contacts.  Barros Basto first began correspondence with the leaders of the Sephardic communities throughout Europe.  Paul Goodman of the London Marranos Committee was one; in Hamburg he contacted the well-known Sephardic family Cassuto which in 1933 escaped to Porto. Barros Basto was particularly worried about the fate of German Jews, and his success in the revival of Jewish life in Porto garnered the interest among many German Jewish leaders.  Besides Alfred Klee, the vice president of the Jewish community of Berlin, there was the director of the Israelite Institute of Berlin, Ismar Elbogen who both were frequent visitors to Porto.  Barros Basto was also in close contact with the community of the famous “Westend-Synagoge” in Frankfurt and with members of the Jewish community of Stuttgart.

So when anti-Semitism grew more violent and more powerful in Germany, those contacts helped dozens of German Jews to escape to the safe haven of Porto.  And as the leader of the Jewish community of Porto Barros Basto made sure that those refugees were integrated into the Sephardic Jewish community of Porto, granted leading positions within the community and he also helped to rent space for an Ashkenazi synagogue in Porto.  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.

But all those activities raised the suspicion of Portuguese authorities.  In 1933 António Salazar had established a corporatist dictatorship which was closely tied to the Catholic Church.  Barros Basto’s criticism of the Portuguese inquisition, his support of liberal principles, his Jewish activism as well as his activities as a free mason made him the target of the PVDE, the Portuguese secret police.  Already in 1935 Portuguese authorities used accusations that Barros Basto allegedly had sexually harassed some of his yeshiva students to immediately shutdown the yeshiva.

Then, in 1937 he was tried before a military court and on June 12 found guilty of having committed “immoral acts.”  The main accusation was that he had performed circumcisions on his yeshiva students and therefore lacked the “moral capacity” to serve in the Portuguese army.  This was enough to convict Barros Basto and to strip him of his military ranks.  He lost his pension, health care, he was not allowed to wear his uniform, he was ostracized and had to resign from his posts in the Jewish community he had helped to build.

While his trial reminds many of the French officer Alfred Dreyfus who was convicted in France in 1894 due to anti-Semitism, there was also a fundamental difference.  In the case of Barros Basto there was no Émile Zola who would defend the accused publicly and there was no public sign of solidarity with Barros Basto.  To the contrary, the conviction sent shock waves through the small Portuguese Jewish community and led to emigration and a steady decline.

Until his death in 1961 Barros Basto tried everything to be reinstated into the army but failed and died as a bitter man.  Even after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, the family of Barros Basto was not able to get a retrial.  However, the daughter and granddaughter of Barros Basto never gave up.  And eventually, 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.  Subsequently, at the end of July, the Portuguese parliament followed the advice and officially reinstated Barros Basto into the army.

This, finally, rights a historical wrong and, although much too late, gives back the dignity and honor to a man who should be remembered as a true tsaddik.

Kevin Zdiara is a freelance writer, frequent contributor to the German blog "The Axis of Good," and a PhD student in philosophy at the Max Weber Center for Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt, Germany.

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