Portuguese hero still awaiting justice

By Richard Zimler, December 15, 2011
Artur Barros Basto

Artur Barros Basto

Long after his death, the granddaughter of a Portuguese military captain who was humiliated and persecuted for his attempt to re-establish the country's long-lost Jewish community is fighting to rehabilitate his reputation.

Having discovered early in life that he was descended from a Jewish family, Artur Barros Basto went on to found a yeshivah, a community newspaper and a shul in 1920s Porto.

In the 1930s, however, in response to Barros Basto's campaign, Portugal's Fascist government found him guilty of having participated in circumcision ceremonies after investigating him on trumped-up charges of homosexuality. As a result, the government stripped him of his military commission and revoked his pension.

Barros Basto never recovered from his public humiliation. His movement lost all organised support and floundered. After years of emotional and financial difficulties, he died in 1961, almost completely forgotten by the public.

Barros Basto's granddaughter, Isabel Ferreira Lopes, who has been campaigning for years on his behalf, recently submitted a new request to the Portuguese parliament to have his reputation reinstated.

Previous such attempts have all failed. A formal request filed by Barros Basto's wife, Lea, in 1975 - shortly after the establishment of a democracy in Portugal - was blocked by the army.

"In my family, we are all very proud of my grandfather," Ms Lopes says. "Finally being able to rehabilitate his name - if it happens - will mean winning a battle that has been passed down across three generations, from my grandmother and mother to me. It will mean that we finally have some compensation for my grandfather's immeasurable suffering - and that our love for him has managed to bring about justice."

After a distinguished tour of duty in the First World War, Barros Basto returned to Portugal and began to study Jewish practice and Hebrew.

He eventually settled with his wife in Porto, establishing the first Jewish community there in more than 400 years.

In the 1920s, there were virtually no practising Jews in Portugal. The entire Jewish community was forced to convert to Catholicism in the late 15th century and then persecuted by the Inquisition for practising Judaism in secret until the late 18th century.

By the late 1930s, Barros Basto's successes had brought out the latent antisemitism in the country's dictatorship, which organised his public shaming and exit from the military.

Last updated: 2:09pm, December 15 2011