In Uruguay, city’s Sephardi past hidden from tourists

By Jonathan Gilbert, August 9, 2013
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The small city of Colonia is a historical jewel, a World Heritage Site of cobbled alleys and crumbling 17th-century architecture.

But this magnet for tourists, a short boat ride from Buenos Aires, also has a rich, little-known Jewish past.
Colonia changed hands between the Portuguese and Spanish Crowns at least seven times before it eventually became a part of Uruguay in 1830, the year the Southern Cone nation — today home to around 25,000 Jews — won independence from Brazil.

That colonial history has been beautifully preserved. Brazilian tourists pose for photos by the old city gates, just a few hundred yards from the murky-brown River Plate estuary.

Few, however, will have noticed the mark of an ancient mezuzah on one of the street’s doorposts. And at the Plaza Mayor hotel, the puzzling stone ruins beneath a staircase are actually the remnants of a mikveh.

Historians believe the mikveh dates back to 1722 and claim the outline of another can be seen among the remains of the governor’s house.

“The Jewish presence here was overwhelming,” says Alberto Pintos Lareo, a tour guide in Colonia.

Jews fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition arrived in Colonia from the south of Portugal, as well as from the Madeira and Azores archipelagos. Dutch Sephardim who had moved to Brazil, where they worked as merchants controlling trade between the New World and Europe, also made for Colonia.

And among the small fleet that set out to found Colonia in 1680 was a ship nicknamed the “Boat of the Jews”, Mr Larea says.

In the mid-18th century, Sephardim in Colonia managed the flow of Brazilian diamonds out of the city’s port. Mr Larea estimates that around a quarter of Colonia’s 4,000 residents were Jewish during this period.

Most of the Sephardim, however, were New Christians that had converted during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, or Crypto-Jews who practised in secret. Consequently, the future of Judaism in Colonia was always precarious.

But while there are no practising Jews among today’s population, Sephardi surnames, like Abreu and da Fonseca, are still common.

For a short time, a shul — the Centenario — even operated in Colonia. Now, the building stands abandoned — a lonely vestige of the city’s Jewish past.

Jonathan Gilbert is a journalist based in Argentina

Last updated: 3:45pm, August 9 2013