The Jewish Community of Oporto, Portugal, is campaigning to have its founder posthumously reinstated into the army.
Capt. Arthur Carlos Barros Basto (1887-1961), a decorated Portuguese army officer who fought in World War I, was drummed out of the military in 1937 for facilitating circumcision among converts and Marranos, or crypto-Jews, an act considered immoral by the Christian authorities at the time.
To the community he is known as the “Portuguese Dreyfus,” referring to the famous case of French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), who spent years in prison on false charges of treason when he was in fact targeted for being a Jew.
For decades, it was largely Barros Basto’s closest relatives who fought to repair his reputation. The community had died with Barros Basto’s fall, reviving only in 2012. Today, it numbers about 1,000 Jews. It has three synagogues (including the second largest in Europe, built thanks to Barros Basto’s efforts), a Holocaust museum, a Jewish museum and kosher restaurants.
In 2012, the Portuguese parliament unanimously declared that Barros Basto had been the target of political and religious persecution and recommended to the government that he be reinstated, though without compensation. The next year, the army notified the government that Barros Basto was eligible for posthumous reinstatement as a colonel, the rank he would have attained in November 1945 had he not been expelled. The army, too, stressed it should be without compensation.
“The community and the granddaughter accepted the bill in 2012 and the proposal of the army in 2013. We had no problem at all with it. We didn’t want compensation. Unfortunately, the government didn’t act on it,” David Garrett, an Oporto Jewish Community board member in charge of its legal affairs, told JNS.
Two years later, in 2015, a group of Portuguese lawmakers submitted a bill to rehabilitate Barros Basto. They again underscored the fact that no financial compensation would be forthcoming. At this point, the community objected and the parliamentarians withdrew the bill.
“For us and for the granddaughter, it was never about the money. We objected to the fact that it became about the compensation and not the rehabilitation,” Garrett said. “It was rude to constantly be speaking about the money. It became a source of shame to us because in cases of reinstatement of people from the army and others, they always paid compensation.”
The community filed a new request under a 2018 law permitting the reinstatement of deceased military personnel. The response it received was astonishing. A special commission composed of representatives from the social security system and various military branches said Barros Basto must make the request in person, Garrett said.
“It is incredible, but the state is now claiming that my grandfather needs to be alive — age 136 — and can only receive the posthumous reinstatement if he requests it personally,” said Isabel Barros Ferreira Lopes, Barros Bastos’s granddaughter and vice president of the Oporto community.
“Despite these important decisions by parliament and the army, which are already over 10 years old, I have yet to receive any document stating my grandfather’s official reinstatement into the army, which has been postponed indefinitely by the government,” said Ferreira Lopes, adding she will fight until her grandfather has a “full and official” reinstatement.
The community is considering lodging a complaint with the Portuguese Administrative Court, and if necessary, afterwards with the European Court of Human Rights.
“The motive is ill will against the Jewish Community of Oporto,” community president Gabriel Senderowicz told JNS, noting that hundreds of people have been posthumously reinstated.
“The Oporto community has always been the target of Lisbon’s mediocre elites, who have used slanderous anonymous denunciations by the scum of society. They did it with Barros Basto in the 1930s, they did it with us in 2022,” he said.
The Oporto Jewish community says it has been the target of an antisemitic campaign since early 2020. The campaign, it says, was orchestrated by those seeking to abolish the Nationality Law for Portuguese Sephardic Jews, or “Sephardic Law.” The 2015 legislation grants Portuguese citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled from the country in the 15h century.
“They were a group of antisemitic politicians, journalists and influencers,” Senderowicz said. “They launched a slanderous campaign against the law, saying ‘candidates only want passports of convenience.’ ”
The accusations sharpened in December 2021, focusing on the fees charged by the Jewish community to issue certificates. (The law required certification from the Portuguese Jewish community “proving Sephardic Jewish lineage of Portuguese origin.”)
Opponents of the law leveled charges of corruption and alleged that the community was making millions in profits through these certifications. Police opened a criminal investigation in February 2022. Senderowicz said Portuguese authorities “invaded” Oporto’s Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue “as if it were a brothel.”
On March 10, 2022, in a public arrest, Oporto’s chief rabbi, Daniel Litvak, was taken into custody. Litvak was placed in a cell with a murderer and denied kosher food, forcing him to go more than 24 hours without eating, according to a complaint filed by the community with the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), an independent body of the European Union, on Aug. 26.
The Lisbon Court of Appeals revoked restrictions he was under on Sept. 27, and the judges rebuked the Public Prosecutor’s Office, stating that the criminal intent attributed to the defendant’s conduct was baseless.
As the community found itself forced to defend its reputation against false accusations, it identified even more with the trials of its founder.
“The attack against Barros Basto, my grandfather, in the 1930s, to whom anonymous denouncements attributed the crimes of fashion, then pederasty and homosexuality, was the same thing that happened in 2022, only now the crimes of fashion are corruption and whitewashing,” Ferreira Lopes told JNS. “In both cases, the state took advantage of anonymous denunciations of criminals to destroy the reputation of the community.”
(Ferreira Lopes’s home was one of those searched by the police for money and incriminating documents. None was found.)
Barros Basto, often incorrectly described as a Marrano, was actually a Catholic who became Jewish in 1920 following a 13-year conversion process. He energized the small community of Oporto, made up of Ashkenazim from Central and Eastern Europe. Barros Basto and his family were the only Sephardic Jews. Under his guidance, the community set up a school and a newspaper, and started a fund for the construction of what would become the largest synagogue in the Iberian peninsula. He also dreamed of establishing a chief rabbinate of Portugal.
As leader of the community, Barros Basto became aware of the existence of Marranos, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the Middle Ages but continued to practice some form of Judaism in secret. Many in truth could not be considered crypto-Jews by the 20th century, and were strongly attached to Christianity. Nevertheless, Barros Basto became fascinated with the subject.
“All alone, the captain tracked down clusters of populations hitherto unknown or even registered in any form. He went looking for Marranos in the farthest corners of Portugal, setting up official communities, establishing synagogues in the villages, translating into Portuguese many texts of Jewish liturgy and literature,” according to “Two Millennia of the Jewish Community of Oporto,” a recent book put out by the community.
“The Jewish community of Oporto became a ‘proselytizing station,’ causing astonishment in and indeed the protest of Portuguese churches,” according to the book.
The captain was not particularly careful about following the letter of Jewish religious law and acted with perhaps too much openness when letting in new members to the community. Barros Basto once explained, “I have organized the community in Oporto with the Jewish elements I was able to find without taking care to make a selection. It was like building a barracks and I accepted all those who would be soldiers.”
However, 1934 would mark the start of the captain’s downfall, when an anonymous letter sent to the police accused him of being a violent homosexual. The police quickly concluded that the charges were false and a matter of internal intrigue within the community. However, in 1936, another false charge was brought, a follow-up to the first, accusing him of pederasty. This time “agents of the state” seized the opportunity to bring down the captain.
“In the 1930s, as Barros Basto was the only Portuguese in the community and the Ashkenazim did not know how to deal with Portuguese organizations, the destruction of Barros Basto, financially and morally, meant the death of the organization,” said Barros Basto’s granddaughter.
In 1937, although acquitted of the initial charges (essentially homosexuality) he was found guilty by an Army Disciplinary Counsel of carrying out circumcisions, rendering him “morally unsuited to the prestige of his office and the decorum of his uniform.”
It was like a death sentence for Barros Basto, said those who knew him. His daughter Miriam said that he would come home, “sit and bury his face in his knees, asking what he had done to deserve such a sad ending.” Barros Basto never lost hope that one day he would return to military service. “Before he died, he was still saying: ‘One day, I will get justice,’” said Miriam, according to a community statement.
Recently, the community financed a feature film titled “Sefarad,” which tells his story.