(I wrote this article for the Canadian Jewish News in 2006 in order to commemmorate the 500th Anniversary of the Lisbon Massacre of 1506. In that massacre, 2,000 "New Christians" - Jews forcibly converted to Christianity - were murdered and burnt in two large pyres in Lisbon's main square.)
The 500th Anniversary of the Lisbon Massacre
Precisely 500 year ago, on April 19, 1506, the Lisbon Massacre began…
At the time, the Portuguese capital was a dusty, disease-ridden city wasted by plague and drought. Just off the main square, in St. Dominic’s Church, priests decided to restore the demoralized residents’ faith in God’s mercy. That morning, they apparently carved a niche at the back of a large crucifix. During mass, they put a candle inside so that the glow of the flame would show through, declaring the radiance a miracle.
As the story goes, among the worshipers was a man who called out that rain would be a far more useful miracle. This daring but foolhardy churchgoer happened to be a New Christian – a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism. Thousands of New Christians lived in Lisbon at the time because King Manuel had ordered all of the Portuguese Jews forcibly converted to Christianity nine years earlier. Their only other choice had been death.
The worshiper who was foolish enough to criticize the priestly ruse in St. Dominic’s Church that day was immediately seized, and outraged members of the congregation soon chopped off his head. Furious Dominican priests subsequently led a mob out to the streets, inciting them to riot with calls for “Death to the Jews and heretics!”
Most of the former Jews had moved their faith into the shadows by then; in public, they professed to be good Catholics, but in their own homes – behind closed curtains and locked doors – they practiced their traditional religion. On the 19th of April, most of them would have been celebrating Passover.
As the crazed crowd rampaged through the traditional Jewish quarters of the city, they burst into New Christian homes and murdered whomever they could capture. Over the course of three days of rioting, they dragged the victims’ bodies to the Rossio, the square that is still at the heart of the Portuguese capital, and burnt them in two enormous pyres.
Contemporaneous accounts tell us that “Northern sailors” paid for the wood to burn the bodies. They do not mention the stench of charring human flesh, but I’d imagine that no one in Lisbon that day would ever forget it.
Some historians give the death toll as high as four thousand, though most estimates center around a figure of 2,000. In any case, given that the Jewish population of the city could probably not have been more than 10,000, virtually every Jewish family would have lost a loved one that day.
I first read about the Lisbon Massacre in 1989, by which time I’d been to Portugal several times to visit friends, and it shocked me that none of them knew anything about the pogrom. I soon discovered, too, that it wasn’t mentioned in school textbooks. The massacre had been erased from collective memory. It was as if the 2,000 Jews who’d been murdered in April of 1506 had never lived.
Feeling outraged, I decided to make the Lisbon Massacre the background for the novel I was then planning about a 16th Century Portuguese artist. This tragic event fit perfectly into my objectives as a writer, since one of my aims has always been to give voice to people who have been systematically silenced. I take pride in crafting stories that force us to remember events that many people would prefer to forget.
The novel I was then planning turned into The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, which tells the story of Berekiah Zarco, a bright and studious young New Christian who lives through the Lisbon Massacre only to discover that his beloved Uncle Abraham, his spiritual mentor, has been murdered in the family cellar. Berekiah must track down the killer. As a kabbalist interested in the symbolic meaning of events, he also tries to interpret what the pogrom means for him, his family, the Jewish people, all of humanity, and even God’s Upper Realms. Berekiah gives his interpretation on the last page of the novel, and it is a reading of events that gives the previous 300 pages of the book a poignant and chilling new meaning.
In my subsequent novels, Hunting Midnight and Guardian of the Dawn, I’ve written about other dramatic and little-known events in Sephardic Jewish history, including the imposition of the Inquisition in Goa, India. Indeed, my aim has been to create a Sephardic Cycle, a series of independent novels – to be read in any order – about different branches and generations of Berekiah Zarco’s family.
A few months ago, after I reminded one of Portugal’s Jewish leaders about the upcoming 500th anniversary of the massacre, the Lisbon Jewish community decided to hold a commemoration ceremony on April 29th. As that date approaches, I’ve been thinking about why we ought to remember the 2,000 Jews murdered five centuries ago.
For anyone who believes that we learn from history, the answer is obvious: we should commemorate the massacre in order to prevent such murderous outbreaks of religious and ethnic hatred from happening again. For practicing Jews, another reason is provided by Judaism’s extraordinary emphasis on remembrance. Every Passover, for instance, we re-enact the Hebrews flight from Egypt to the Promised Land. We do this, I think, not just to feel ourselves linked to our forefathers and bound to God, but also to remind ourselves that we are exactly like the people who have come before us.
Although both of these reasons once seemed entirely valid to me, I now have my doubts. Having recently turned 50, and no longer as optimistic as I was as a young man, I’ve come to believe that only a fraction of us learn anything valuable from history. And I’ve lately begun to suspect, too, that in remembering our forefathers – in feeling ourselves part of a tightly knit Jewish community – we may tend to exclude people of other ethnicities and religions, even when it comes time to help them fight against violent oppression.
It’s when I open my morning newspaper and read about yet one more bombing in Iraq and more attacks in Israel and Palestine – just to choose two obvious examples – that I become convinced that we are largely deaf to the voices of our ancestors. And even those people who do speak of having learned from the past often seem to have picked up the wrong lessons. America’s leaders are convinced, for instance, that the September 11th terrorist attacks justify their country using any means necessary to achieve current foreign policy goals. And many American pundits somehow learned from their nation’s history of foreign warfare that U.S. troops would be met with open arms in Iraq.
All over the world – but especially in the Middle East – perpetrators of violence point to their people’s past sufferings as justification for committing moral outrages.
Yet even though I am riddled with doubts about our ability to make use of the past to create a better future, I still very much want to commemorate the death of 2,000 Jews in Lisbon. A few days ago, I had a seemingly silly daydream that gave me the reason why.
As I was sitting at my desk in my Porto home, I imagined a spaceship from a planet 100 light years away landing nearby, and when our extraterrestrial visitor came down his ramp, I decided to ask him about the history of his people and planet. But he knew almost nothing.
To me, that seemed a waste of a wonderful opportunity. To have journeyed for many decades, across an unimaginable expanse of space, and then have nothing to tell us about what his world has gone through… Why come to Earth at all?
My brief daydream left me feeling that those of us without wide and varied historical knowledge have something essential missing from our lives. How is it possible to go on the wonderful journey we each make – from birth to death – without knowing the triumphs and miseries of centuries gone by, without knowing where we have been?
Our history is what any visitors to our planet would want to know first, and they’d be right! Because it helps to make us who we are. The more we know about where we’ve come from, the greater our insight will be into ourselves, our loved ones, our countries and our world.
I believe now that Jewish tradition, in re-enacting historical events, points us in the exactly the right direction; past struggles and trials prove to us that we are all on the same journey, and if we are to have any hope at all of rectifying injustices in our world, I believe that we need to be reminded of that as often as possible. But I’d also like to expand the scope of our Jewish celebrations. Though it might seem absurd to some, I think it’s essential that we remember the tragedies and triumphs of other peoples – of Sudanese, Rwandans, Afghanis, and everyone else. In part, that’s because – as heretical as it may sound to Orthodox Jewish ears – I believe that all human beings are God’s Chosen People. In other words, an African slave shot down by an American plantation owner while fleeing captivity is as much my ancestor – and as worthy of my remembrance – as a Hebrew slave fleeing Egypt 2,500 years ago.
So I’ll be in Lisbon on April 29th, thinking not only about the Jews massacred in April of 1506, but also about everyone still being crushed and murdered on behalf of fundamentalist gods, dictators, and political ideals.
Causes Richard Zimler Supports
Save the Children, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)