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Historical drama depicts untold story of the 1930s ‘Portuguese Dreyfus Affair’

Premiering January 15 in Miami, ‘Sefarad’ is the tale of a real-life Marrano WWI war hero who converts to Judaism, revives Oporto Jewry, and is expelled from the military.

Inside a country inn in northern Portugal in the early 20th century, a group of men and women sit on wooden benches and hold hands in communal prayer. In this moving scene depicted in the new historical drama, “Sefarad,” it is explained that four centuries earlier, Jews were either expelled from the country or went underground with their religious practices. For these worshippers, descendants of Marranos or crypto-Jews, any religious observance had to be done in secret.

Inspired by real events, “Sefarad,” will screen in its world premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival on Tuesday.

Named after the region on the Iberian Peninsula where Sephardic Jews originated, “Sefarad” tells the sweeping story of Jews in Portugal across 500 years — from the Middle Ages to the Inquisition to the modern era. The script was written by the Center for Historical Research of the Jewish community of Oporto (Porto), a large northern port city that witnessed pivotal moments in Portuguese Jewish history in the 20th century.

The film tells its story largely through a depiction of Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto (1887-1961), a real-life Portuguese army captain who converted to Judaism after discovering he had Jewish ancestors.

Portrayed by actor Rodrigo Santos, Barros Basto worked to establish a Jewish community in Porto — including the construction of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, in 1938.

Barros Basto also made outreach efforts to fellow crypto-Jews in northern Portugal, but they resisted his efforts to join an organized community. Adding insult to injury, he was expelled from the army after a tribunal convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer.

“I think Barros Basto showed incredible perseverance and dedication,” said Dara Jeffries, a representative of the Jewish community of Oporto. “We put it out as a big feature of the film, the extraordinary thing he did in the face of extraordinary odds.”

She called the film “a work to inform, more than anything [else], something that will pique interest.” As Jeffries explained, the story of Portuguese Jewry captivated her husband Dale,  who persuaded the board to make a film.

The resulting film took six months to make and was shot across multiple locations in Portugal. In an email, the couple called the two production companies, LightBox and emRelevo, “reputable,” and described director Luis Ismael as charismatic and well-known. (Ismael declined an interview request.) For its premiere, Dara Jeffries submitted “Sefarad” to the Miami Jewish Film Festival.

“The Jewish Community of Oporto made this film to tell a generally unknown story honestly and hopes people will find it inspirational,” the couple said.

Yet the film opens with a bleak moment. Sweeping scenes of a thriving Medieval Jewry conclude with the decree of expulsion by King Dom Manuel I in 1496, four years after a similar decree in neighboring Spain.

“Jews had three ways to confront their expulsion from Portugal during the Inquisition: to continue practicing Judaism in exile, remain in Portugal as ‘New Christians,’ or practice Judaism in hiding as so-called ‘Marranos’ or ‘crypto-Jews,’” the couple said. “The film includes all three of these: Judaism, Christianity and Marranism, a religion specific to the Marranos.”

Yet, they continued, “The Marranos were not accepted by Christians who considered them Jews, and not accepted by Jews because they could not prove their unbroken matrilineal descent, and had adopted many customs inspired in Christianity.”

The narrative jumps ahead more than four centuries to 1923, after the Inquisition had finally officially been abolished and a Jewish community rose anew in Porto — the city famous as the birthplace of port wine.

Here, Barros Basto, a decorated veteran of World War I, works over the next decades to fill key communal roles such as religious authorities and teachers, and to find a place to worship in public.

Those crypto-Jews were not less surprised to learn that they were not the sole remnant Jews in the world

“When he created the community there were only 17 Jews in the city, all of them Ashkenazi,” Israel-based journalist, translator and researcher Inacio Steinhardt told The Times of Israel. “They opened the first prayer quorum in a rented flat and were surprised when a few crypto-Jews from the villages, living in the city, came to this place and introduced themselves. Those crypto-Jews were not less surprised to learn that they were not the sole remnant Jews in the world.”

A far larger-scale project would soon stand as a new house of worship: the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, named after a philanthropic Jewish family. While the Kadoories were based thousands of miles away in Hong Kong and Singapore, patriarch Elly’s late wife Laura (Mocatta) Kadoorie was of Portuguese Jewish descent.

As construction begins on the magnificent structure in Porto, Barros Basto rides on horseback to meet crypto-Jews living in remote mountain villages. He tells them that other Jews exist beyond Portugal, including in Central and Eastern Europe. One evening, he joins his hosts for clandestine prayer at the village inn.

The historical phenomenon of Marranism and crypto-Judaism in northern Portugal came to the attention of the wider world in the modern era. Those credited with publicizing the phenomenon include American mining engineer Samuel Schwarz in the early 20th century and French photographer Frederic Brenner in the late 20th century.

Brenner’s work was incorporated into a 1990 documentary about crypto-Jews in the municipality of Belmonte, called “The Last Marranos.” The documentary includes footage of Steinhardt interviewing residents of Belmonte — crypto-Jews and non-Jews.

Steinhardt told The Times of Israel that the crypto-Jews of Belmonte “have been ‘converted’ to normative Judaism,” while crypto-Judaism in the rest of Portugal “came to an end.”

Crypto-Jewish rituals were “highly syncretic, with a lot of Christianity and Judaism melded and morphed, and in some cases with a few Hebrew words inserted into prayers. A lot is unrecognizable to what is Diaspora Judaism today,” said Aviva Ben-Ur, a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Manuel da Costa Fontes, an emeritus professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Kent State University, also had an opportunity to observe crypto-Jewish practices when he visited northern Portugal in the past century. (He drew a distinction between Marranos and crypto-Jews, saying that crypto-Jews were Marranos who practiced Judaism, but that not all Marranos practiced Judaism.)

Da Costa Fontes published 11 specific crypto-Jewish prayers. These were all in Portuguese, with the only Hebrew word being “Adonai” (Lord).

He recalled that one particular prayer was “very important” to an elderly woman. Whenever her children would leave the house, she would ask for them to be protected from “the irons of the king, the Inquisition, from all the evil that can befall them, the irons of the king and the Inquisition.”

“This was in 1980,” he noted.

In Barros Basto’s day, crypto-Jews were ultimately reluctant to join him for worship at the magnificent new synagogue rising in Porto. By then, the captain had other difficulties: An anonymous source in the Jewish community leveled an accusation against him to the military stemming from the circumcisions he was overseeing. He faced a military trial in 1937.

Dara Jeffries compares his situation with that of another decorated Jewish veteran: Captain Alfred Dreyfus in France.

“Like Dreyfus,” she said, “he was unjustly accused. He lost his reputation. It reflected poorly on the Jewish community as a whole… Like everywhere in Europe, [Barros Basto] had to face anti-Semitism. That’s one of the issues that led to his being expelled from the army.”

However, she added, “an important fact” is that in Barros Basto’s case, the accusation came from “an internal person” within the Jewish community who “brought to the attention of authorities that he was doing something wrong. There was a whole court proceeding. They did not find him guilty, but the army felt his conduct was not worthy or becoming of an officer. He got expelled with loss of pay, loss of rank, everything.”

Barros Basto, forbidden from wearing the army uniform he once donned so proudly, continued to work to help coreligionists at home and abroad, using Mekor Haim to shelter hundreds of Holocaust refugees during WWII. Yet the film depicts his realization that once the refugees left, the synagogue he had worked so hard to construct and fill would be largely empty. As he plays with his granddaughter Isabel late in life, he cannot help feeling bitter and betrayed.

“After the fall of [Barros Basto] and later his death the Mekor Haim [congregation] declined drastically and eventually was almost inactive for more than a decade,” noted Steinhardt, who is the co-author with Elvira Mea of a Portuguese biography of Barros Basto.

“Did he fail in his mission?” Steinhardt and Mea asked in a 1999 article in the journal Shofar. “Was he responsible, through his errors, for administering the final blow to this hidden Judaism that would eventually have returned to its origins, either through the hands of others or of its own initiative?

“The fact that even today the torches of those setting out along the return path are rekindled from time to time leads us to believe that only the future will be able to assess the true impact of Barros Basto’s work,” write the authors.

The film closes with several notes of optimism: Isabel Barros Basto is shown playing with her grandfather’s army cap as a child. She grew up to spearhead a petition to rehabilitate him and is today a vice president of Mekor Haim. Barros Basto was successfully reinstated by the Portuguese parliament in April 2013. That same year, Portugal welcomed the descendants of its expelled Sephardim to apply for citizenship.

Dara Jeffries describes the current Jewish community of Porto as flourishing and reaching out to Christian and Muslim neighbors — a worthy tribute to the protagonist of the film.

“There’s enormous interest in this growing community,” she said. “It’s a symbol of hope. He planted the seeds. The tree is blossoming. It’s a very positive thing.”