His exploits extended from the battlefields of World War I to the struggle to reclaim crypto-Jewish identity, but this intrepid figure met a cruel and unwarranted end at the hands of Portugal’s dictatorial regime. Despite the passage of so many decades, the injustice committed against him cries out for resolution. The time has come to give this man his due.
Barros Basto came from a family of Bnei Anusim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”), descendants of Jews whose ancestors had been forced to convert to Catholicism in the 15th century.
Raised a Catholic, he went on to become a decorated soldier who commanded a Portuguese infantry company in World War I, where he fought in the trenches of Flanders and took part in the allied offensive to liberate Belgium.
After the war Barros Basto decided to re-embrace the faith of his forefathers. He studied Judaism intensively, then traveled to Spanish Morocco in December 1920 to undergo a formal return to the Jewish people before a rabbinical court.
Back in Portugal, Barros Basto settled in the northern city of Oporto, where he launched a public campaign to persuade other Bnei Anusim to return to their roots. Donning his military uniform and medals, he traveled among the towns and villages of Portugal’s interior, giving rousing speeches, conducting Jewish services and seeking to inspire others to follow his example. After centuries of hiding, thousands of Bnei Anusim answered his call and tentatively agreed to join his movement.
Barros Basto turned to world Jewry for help, and succeeded in raising the necessary funds to build the magnificent Mekor Haim synagogue, which still stands in Oporto. He opened a yeshiva that operated for nine years, where dozens of young Bnei Anusim learned about Jewish life and lore. He also single-handedly produced a Jewish newspaper, Halapid (the Torch), and was responsible for the publication of numerous books on Jewish history and law in Portuguese.
BUT HIS open identification with Judaism, and the thousands of people whom he touched, did not sit well with the government or with Church authorities. They sought to quell his nascent movement by bringing him up on charges connected to the practice of the Jewish religion. On June 12, 1937, the Superior Disciplinary Council of the Portuguese Army concluded that Barros Basto lacked the “moral capacity” to serve in its ranks.
And just what exactly was his “crime”?
Incredibly, the military council declared that Barros Basto had “performed the operation of circumcision of several students pursuant to a precept of the Israelite religion he professes” and said that he was excessively affectionate toward his pupils.
As a result, they summarily drummed him out of the armed forces, destroyed his career and sullied his name. This brought about an end to his efforts to reawaken Portugal’s Bnei Anusim, many of whom saw the treatment meted out to Barros Basto as a sign that the authorities would not tolerate their return to Judaism.
In 1961, he died, a broken man. Stripped of his rank and publicly humiliated because he was a Jew, Barros Basto has been likened by historians such as Cecil Roth to Alfred Dreyfus, the French general staff officer who was convicted of treason on trumped-up charges in 1894 and drummed out of the military.
But unlike Dreyfus, Barros Basto has yet to receive the exoneration he deserves. Once Portugal began its transition to democracy in 1975, his family appealed to the authorities to rectify the situation, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
For the past decade, Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, has been involved in the Barros Basto case.
Over the years, we elicited support from American Jewish organizations such as the Conference of Presidents, the Orthodox Union and the Religious Zionists of America, all of whom have written to the Portuguese ambassador to Washington about the matter.
Last month, on October 31, there was an important new development.
With the help of an attorney, the captain’s granddaughter, Isabel Maria de Barros Lopes, submitted a formal request to the president of the Portuguese parliament seeking her grandfather’s posthumous reinstatement into the military.
Isabel told me that she is determined to see things through. Just like her grandfather, she is not afraid to fight for what is right.
But more pressure must be brought to bear on Portuguese officials. Contact your local Portuguese embassy or sign the petition online to the leader of the Portuguese parliament.
We must garner as much international support as possible to bring closure to this painful chapter.
Barros Basto was a courageous figure who stood up for the Jewish people, defying the powers that be to help his brethren. He was a victim of anti-Semitism, so how can we remain silent?
Several years ago, in the northern Portuguese village of Amarante, I entered the local cemetery and stood before Barros Basto’s simple and unadorned grave. Then and there, I made a promise to do what I could to restore his honor and bring about justice.
There is now an unprecedented opportunity to do so and we must not let it pass.
The stain on this noble man’s name is also a stain on Portugal itself, and it is time for it to be removed, once and for all.
Rehabilitate the Portuguese Dreyfus and let justice be done, so that his soul may finally rest in peace.