Rededicated burial site among ‘beautiful vestiges’ of Cape Verde’s Jewish presence

By Debra Rubin/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Lisbon’s Chief Rabbi Eliezer Shai di Martino offered prayers during the rededication ceremony of the Jewish burial site in Praia, Cape Verde. The islands are a former Portuguese colony. U.S. Ambassador to Cape Verde Adrienne O’Neal is to the far right; the French and Portuguese ambassadors were also present. Credit: Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, Inc.

There are just 10 Jewish graves at the Jewish burial site in the Cape Verde capital of Praia—several with Hebrew inscriptions, the oldest dating to 1864, the most recent to 1918—surrounded by a sea of tombstones in a Christian cemetery.

Those 10 graves, however, are reminders of the Jews who contributed to the growth of Cape Verde and whose descendants remain prominent in the 10-island, predominately Catholic, African archipelago.

The Jewish burial site was rededicated in early May, thanks to the efforts of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, Inc. (CVJHP), which was founded in 2007 by Carol Castiel, who works for Voice of America.

While many Jews to the former Portuguese colony had come during the Inquisition, they were for the most part New Christians (Jews forcibly converted by the Inquisition) who disappeared into the population. A second wave of Jews—representing some dozen or so Moroccan families—arrived in the mid-1800s, emigrating directly from Morocco or via Gibraltar to the trans-Atlantic commercial hub. Ensuring the memory of those Jews— merchants and traders with such surnames as Auday, Benros, Benoliel, Benchimol, Cohen, Levy, Pinto, Seruya and Wahnon that persist to this day—is CVJHP’s focus.

Click photo to download. Caption: The rededicated Jewish burial site in the Cape Verde capital of Praia. Credit: Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, Inc.

Although the Jews who settled in Cape Verde never established a formal Jewish community, they were buried according to Jewish law. The rededicated site in Praia is one of four Jewish burial areas in Cape Verde that CVJHP is renovating—“beautiful vestiges of the presence of the Jews,” Castiel calls them.

Her project has caught the attention of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. He contributed $100,000 in 2010, the largest donation the tiny nonprofit has received, Castiel says. In a message read at the dedication, his senior adviser, Andre Azoulay, called the king’s support of the project  “representative of Morocco’s attachment to the preservation of its patrimony—Arab, Jewish or Berber.”

The project has the support of Cape Verde’s government, too.

“By preserving the cemeteries, the Jewish Heritage Project is preserving part of our history and culture,” says Maria de Fatima Lima de Veiga, Cape Verde’s ambassador to the United States.

In addition, she says, officials hope that these remnants of a time when Jews lived in Cape Verde will draw Jewish tourists to the islands.

The project has been a labor of love for Castiel who first learned that Jews had once lived on the islands—and their non-Jewish descendants remain—back in the mid-1980s when she was working on a project for the African-American Institute and spent time in Cape Verde. “To see in a predominately Catholic country a remnant of the Jewish people—it touched me,” she says.

Castiel did research, interviewed descendants and wrote articles about these Jews. “Little did I know that later on I would actually spearhead the actual restoration of the cemeteries,” she says.

In early 2007, Castiel met lawyer Richard Popkin by chance; he offered to do the paperwork to help her create the CVJHP as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which allowed her to begin fundraising and working with Cape Verdean officials to restore the cemeteries. “If we had waited any longer, they would have been beyond repair,” she says.

The restoration of the four burial sites is just one of Castiel’s goals for the nonprofit. She hopes to put together a symposium in 2015, bringing together scholars who have studied the Jews of Cape Verde, including those who may have pre-dated the arrival of the Moroccan and Gibraltarian Jews of the 19th century. “We hope to have a lively and fruitful exchange among scholars,” she says, culminating “in a book on the Jews of Cape Verde.”

This month’s dedication was in a sense a family reunion for descendants of those early Jews. Among them were two American cousins named Wahnon, one whose family remained Jewish, one whose did not. Another cousin, Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga, was Cape Verde’s first democratically elected prime minister in 1991. He, too, attended the rededication ceremonies along with numerous other Wahnons.

“There are lots of Cape Verdean descendants of Jewish families right now; there was quite a crowd, getting and sharing stories” during the dedication, says John Wahnon, a Silver Spring, Md., resident who is not Jewish and emigrated from Cape Verde in 1962 at age 20.

“There probably isn’t a person there who doesn’t have a drop of Jewish blood in them,” he says, noting his belief that it is important to know one’s roots, something he has shared with his children.

Wahnon says he is pleased that the burial sites are being renovated and rededicated. “We are celebrating the fact that the person was here and in some form that person contributed to the society in which they lived,” he says.

His cousin, Sheppard, is Jewish—the men’s great-great-grandfather, along with his son, John’s great-grandfather, immigrated to Cape Verde. Another son, Sheppard’s great-grandfather, did not make the move—and lives in New York. 

It was a thrill, Sheppard Wahnon says, “to be somewhere where my obscure name is known and respected.” He believes the restored burial grounds will help give descendants of the Jews “a sense of connection with this past.”

Pointing to some descendants who have returned to Judaism, including Nuno Wahnon, the B’nai B’rith International representative in Brussels, he says, “My hope is for them to start being Jewish again.”

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Posted on May 26, 2013 and filed under World, Features.