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Impact of Portuguese Inquisition Still Felt by Brazil, Its Jews (last of Three Parts)

July 3, 1987
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As a colony of Portugal, Brazil was affected by the 300 years of repression of the Portuguese Inquisition, which began in 1536. At the First International Congress on the Inquisition, held here recently, scholars contended that the impact of the Inquisition is still felt in Brazil.

Prof. Gerald Nahon of the Religious Sciences Section of the Sorbonne in Paris, discussed the Brazilian experience as it related to the history of Marranos in France. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Isaac de Castro Tartas, the first Brazilian martyr of the Inquisition, was born in Tartas in southern France. The son of Portuguese New Christians, de Castro was educated in France and then went to Dutch Brazil via Amsterdam. De Castro worked with the New Christians in Bahia, urging them to return to Judaism, Nahon said. When Brazil returned to Portuguese control, de Castro was arrested and taken to Lisbon for trial by the Inquisition. He refused to renounce his observance of Judaism, and in December 1647 he was burned alive in Lisbon.

Almost all of the New Christians who left Spain and Portugal passed through France, Nahon said. Beginning with the 17th century, France was an important refuge for New Christians. Jews had been expelled from France at the end of the Middle Ages, but beginning in the 16th century they were given letters of naturalization as New Christians or as merchants, and were allowed to live there, Nahon said.

"They were not admitted officially as Jews, but the government knew they were Jewish and admitted them. Brazil’s first rabbi, in Pernambuco, received his education in France in St. Jean de Luz," he added.


Moacyr Scliar, a Brazilian public health physician who lives in Porto Alegre and is a popular author of fiction with Jewish themes, said the emotional effects of the Inquisition are still present in Brazil. His book that deals in part with the Inquisition in Brazil, "The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes," will be published in English by Crown Books in November.

"The Inquisition was a conditioning factor for the political and emotional life of Brazil," Seliar told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "People hid their emotions and lied during the Inquisition, and today, political and social life here is a kind of double talk. There is also a problem of identity, because so many people who became New Christians were not practicing Christians. There are people in northeastern Brazil who keep Jewish rituals without knowing the rituals are Jewish."


An example of the effects of the Inquisition on Brazilians today is Francisco Oliviera, a 22-year-old from a small town in the interior state of Mato Grosso, who attended the opening session of the conference. Dressed in Orthodox Jewish style with ritual fringes and a hat, Oliveira told the JTA he was a descendant of Marranos who came to Bahia in the 18th century.

"From the age of 10, I studied Torah in a Christian Bible I found at home," he said. "I knew my family had Jewish origins. I decided I had to learn Hebrew, but I couldn’t learn in Mato Grosso." Oliviera wrote to the Israel Consulate and the House of Israeli Culture in Sao Paulo, where he said he was told by the Lubavitch movement that he was neither a Jew nor a Marrano, and that he should be converted to Judaism.

"Then I went to Sephardic Orthodox synagogues, where I felt more comfortable," he said. "I am Sephardic." Eventually, about a year ago, Oliviera sought out Rabbi Efraim Laneado at Bet Yakov, a small Sephardic congregation. Laneado verified that he told Oliviera he was about to go to Israel, and that he would take up the case with the Chief Sephardic Rabbi. The evidence which Laneado presented was approved in Israel, and Oliviera now serves as the cantor for Laneado’s synagogue. He hopes to come to the United States to further his Jewish studies.

Jose Leao Neto, who accompanied Oliviera, is from another small town in Mato Grosso. Neto, age 19, said cousins had married cousins since they came from Portugal and Morocco in 1821, and that some 70 percent of his town comprised descendants of Marranos.

According to Neto, there is a Jewish cemetery, "Kaddish" is recited in Ladino and prayers are conducted in a minyan. He said he is part of an organization of Marranos who are seeking their roots and trying to prove their links to the Jewish community.


The scholarly research and papers presented at the First International Conference on the Inquisition seem to be of immense value in exposing the Portuguese Inquisition, which is much less known than the Spanish. As conference coordinator Prof. Anita Novinsky said, "The congress filled a void in which even the history books are silent."

Perhaps the conference will also serve as a springboard to more research on the remnants of the Inquisition in Brazil, those people such as Oliviera and Neto who even today are suffering from identity crises and a deep desire for roots that were destroyed by the Inquisition. It is apparent from talking with these young men and others like them that the Inquisition is still claiming victims — in a psychological sense — in Brazil today.

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