On an Atlantic isle, Morocco honours its lost Sephardim

By Bernard Josephs, May 17, 2013
Cape Verde, where Jews emigrated in late 19th century

Cape Verde, where Jews emigrated in late 19th century

It was an unlikely setting for a Jewish cemetery and the group, there to attend a rededication ceremony, was also out of the ordinary.

Among those gathered at the event in Cape Verde, an archipelago of islands 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, were high ranking Americans, Europeans and Moroccans, including a representative of King Mohammed VI, a major benefactor of the project.

Four cemeteries are almost all that is left of a community of Sephardic Jews who settled in Cape Verde in the late 19th century, when it was a Portuguese colony. They arrived following the abolition of the inquisition in Portugal and the signing of a commercial treaty between Portugal and Britain.

Individuals with surnames such Benros, Cohen, Levy and Wahnon immigrated to the islands from Morocco searching for greater economic stability. Many passed first through Gibraltar, where they obtained British citizenship.

The Jews prospered in Cape Verde but because they were few in number and mostly men, they assimilated over time with the mainly Catholic population. As a result, Cape Verde has virtually no practising Jews.

Some of those attending the rededication

Some of those attending the rededication

However, the original immigrants took care to bury their dead according to Jewish law. The typical Sephardic headstones bear Portuguese and Hebrew inscriptions and are among the few vestiges of their presence.

Restoration of the cemeteries began in 2007 under the auspices of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project with major funding coming from the Moroccan monarchy and other non-Jewish and Jewish benefactors, with the support of the Cape Verde government.

The completion of the first stage of the project took place on May 2 at the Varzea cemetery in Praia, the Cape Verde capital. Attending the rededication were envoys from Portugal, America, France and Morocco and the Chief Rabbi of Lisbon, Eliezer Shai di Martino.

A Moroccan diplomat, Abdellah Boutadghart, praised the initiative. It was, he said, a reminder to descendants of Cape Verde Jews of their ties to Morocco. Also at the meeting were around 50 descendants of the original Cape Verde Jewish community.

The head of the Jewish Heritage Project, Carol Castiel, praised the role played by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. She said: “We find it very symbolic and important that a Muslim monarch saw fit to support restoring Jewish heritage in a predominantly Catholic country. We just think that this is a message that has to go out to the world.”

Last updated: 5:45pm, May 17 2013