Jewish Community of Oporto calls on global Jewish community to join it in preserving unique Inquisition records as a key to past and future

The Inquisition’s documentation has become the most reliable historical source for the history of the Jewish community in Portugal.

Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto, Portugal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto, Portugal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Jewish Community of Oporto, which paid for the preservation and digitization of Portuguese Inquisition archives from the 16th century, is now seeking to sign an agreement to preserve the 17th-century archive and records, while at the same time calling on the international Jewish community to help in the preservation of later centuries.

Michael Rothwell, director of the Jewish Museum of Oporto and a member of the board of the local Jewish community, recalls, “The Portuguese Inquisition was in force between 1536 and 1831. [Historian] Cecil Roth said since the beginning of history, there has probably been no time when such a systematic and long persecution was perpetrated because of such an innocent practice.”

Under a protocol signed in 2019 between Torre do Tombo National Archive and the Jewish Community of Oporto, the Community undertook to pay for the preservation of 16th Century Inquisition cases. The protocol, assisted by then-Israeli Ambassador to Portugal, Raphael Gamzou, 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, which also included cases from Oporto.

That same year, the Community and the Torre do Tombo National Archive agreed to sign successive protocols regarding the preservation of the Inquisition records of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Now that work on the 16th century is almost concluded, the Community would like to sign a protocol regarding 17th-century Inquisition cases and has called on the Jewish world to help contribute to the cost of the project for the latter centuries. The total value of the three century’s operation could reach as high as 3 million euros.

Ashley Perry (Perez), president of Reconectar, an organization dedicated to helping the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities reconnect with their Jewish ancestry, welcomed the preservation efforts by the Oporto Jewish Community.

“The archives are in danger of being lost to time, which would be a tragedy, not just to our past but also the future as millions of people around the world are researching possible Jewish ancestry,” said Perry, whose ancestors fled Portugal in the early 16th century. “The preservation and digitization of Inquisition records is essential to preserve our global Jewish history, because Portuguese Jews, many of whom had been forcibly baptized and forced to flee, formed the historic Jewish communities in the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands and elsewhere. These archives are Jewish history, and we dare not let them disappear.”

The documentation at the Torre do Tombo National Archive regarding the Court of the Holy Office of the Inquisition and its courts in Lisbon, Coimbra, Évora, Tomar, Oporto and Lamego, total a massive 1,600 meters in length. Ruth Calvão, president of the Center for Jewish Studies in Trás-os-Montes, says, “The deterioration of the archive items constitutes a real danger that the personal stories and testimonies about the historic injustices and atrocities they endured could disappear forever.”

The Inquisition’s documentation has become the most reliable historical source for the history of the Jewish community in Portugal. The Tribunal do Santo Ofício (Inquisition) was established in Portugal to try crimes against the Christian faith and put an end to heresies and apostasies.

Denial of the facts by the subject of the inquiry resulted in months or years in prison including excruciating torture until a new hearing was scheduled. The prisoner was forced to pay all the expenses of the imprisonment, the trial and torture and, if convicted, all property was confiscated.

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