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Inquisition’s victims memorialized by Oporto Jewish community

The memorial wall features the names of 842 victims from Oporto and the dates of their autos-da-fé.

Attendees at the inauguration of a memorial to local victims of the Inquisition at the Jewish Museum of Oporto in Portugal, Sept. 3, 2023. Credit:  CIP/CPJ.
Attendees at the inauguration of a memorial to local victims of the Inquisition at the Jewish Museum of Oporto in Portugal, Sept. 3, 2023. Credit: CIP/CPJ.

The Jewish community of Oporto, Portugal inaugurated a memorial on Sunday to the nearly 1,000 victims of the Inquisition over a period of nearly three centuries.

What makes the Inquisition unique in human history is its length, a period of religious persecution lasting from 1536 until 1821, Michael Rothwell, director of the Jewish Museum of Oporto, told JNS.

The memorial wall, measuring four meters wide by two meters high (13 feet by 6.5 feet), is set into an exterior wall of the Jewish Museum of Oporto and features the names of 842 victims. The community chose to remember those victims born in the city. Next to each name is a date.

“The dates refer to the dates of the autos-da-fé, the public ceremonies in which the sentences of the victims were carried out: some were burned alive, others were sent into exile, others were imprisoned and others were forced to wear the humiliating ‘sambenito’ outfit,” said Rothwell.

The sambenito included a tunic featuring a cross, flames, or devils, and a conical hat.

Among the victims commemorated are a girl of only 10 and a woman aged 110. She was the oldest citizen of Oporto to have been persecuted by the Inquisition, which accused her of Judaizing practices. Her name was Cecília Cardoso.

The memorial at the Jewish Museum of Oporto features the names of 842 victims of the Inquisition. Credit: CIP/CPJ.

“She died in the 16th century. We are studying her case for a book,” said Rothwell. “We hired historians to study all these 842 cases in detail. We shall share the stories next year,” he added.

“The victims had varying professions, and belonged to different social and economic classes,” he said. “In general, these victims were accused of Jewish practices by neighbors. Whether these practices actually happened is lost in time.”

A story that particularly struck Rothwell was that of the Espinosa family, which faced the Inquisition and its methods of torture in the years 1544, 1620 and 1624. The most famous member of that family, the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, was born in Amsterdam not long after, in 1632. His parents had fled Portugal in fear.

Museum Curator Hugo Vaz told JNS that the community would like to see the history of the Inquisition brought into the state’s classrooms.

The community has already seen tremendous success with its Holocaust Museum, which since its opening in 2021, has welcomed 100,000 visitors, the majority of them schoolchildren. However, in Portugal it is easier to teach about the Holocaust than about the Inquisition because the Holocaust is part of the curriculum, while the Inquisition is not.

It’s ironic as “100% of the Portuguese population” has some connection to the “New Christians,” the term used for converted Jews in Spanish and Portuguese lands, said Vaz. Portugal expelled its Jews in 1496, but the majority stayed and were forcibly converted to Catholicism. Given that Jews made up 20% of the population and there were centuries of mixed marriages, it stands to reason that nearly everyone has some connection to the Inquisition, he said.

“Countries don’t like to talk about their black pages,” said Vaz. “And the Inquisition is one of our black pages. I think that’s the reason why we don’t talk about several subjects in Portugal, including slavery, but we do talk about the Holocaust, because we’re not directly connected to it. The Holocaust was far away.”

The most important contribution of the memorial wall may be that it led to an important discovery. Community members in 2018 visited the country’s Inquisition archives and learned it had fallen into a state of decay. “When we first started collecting names, we learned that many documents were unavailable because they were damaged,” said Vaz.

The community signed a protocol in 2019 with the Torre do Tombo National Archive in Lisbon under which it undertook to pay for the preservation of 16th-century Inquisition case records.

Credit: CIP/CPJ.

The agreement made it possible to recruit professional restoration personnel and set in motion the restoration and digitization of 1,778 court cases against “Jewish infidels” in three centers: Lisbon, Évora and Coimbra, the latter of which included cases from Oporto.

In July, the Oporto Jewish community announced it would like to preserve Inquisition records from the 17th century as well.

Saving the Inquisition’s documentation is crucial as it’s the most reliable historical source about the Jewish community in Portugal, according to Vaz. The Inquisition was “like a secret service,” he explained, collecting as much information as it could about the victim’s associations.

If the victim of an Inquisition inquiry issued a denial, he would find himself in prison for months or years, enduring excruciating torture until a new hearing was scheduled. The prisoner was forced to pay all the expenses of the imprisonment, the trial and the torture. If convicted, all his or her property was confiscated.

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