´Without the Past´is the title of an award winning film about the family of Isaac Bitton, a Jew whose ancestors came from Faro. The title comes from a Hebrew saying, `without the past there is no present, without the present there is no future´.
The custodians of the Jewish Heritage Centre in Faro, Ralf and Judith Pinto, made history yesterday with the first of their guided walks around the buildings of Jewish Faro. Judith pointed out the homes, the places of work and the sites of the two synagogues of the Jewish Retornados of the 19th and 20th centuries.
When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them came to Portugal, little guessing that within 5 years they would be either expelled from Portugal or forcibly converted to Christianity. When Pope Paul III agreed in 1536 that Portugal might have its own version of the Inquisition many Jews escaped the country to North Africa, Gibraltar, Turkey, Italy, France or the Netherlands. Isaac Bitton´s family was among those who endured the worst of conditions in North Africa. After his dismantlement of the Inquisition, the Marquês de Pombal invited Jewish traders and businessmen to settle again in the land of their ancestors. Some sixty families at the beginning of the 19th century settled in Faro and the thriving Jewish community became known as ´Little Jerusalem´. Many of these families were in the business of the Algarve´s produce, such as cereals, cork, charcoal and cloth. In due course the community migrated to Lisbon and the last member left Faro in 1969. The Jewish cemetery accepted its last interment in 1938 and fell into disuse.
In 1984 Isaac Bitton visited the grave of his mother in Faro´s Jewish cemetery. He decided that it should be refurbished as a memorial to the old Jewish community of Faro, and he immediately set up a charitable fund in his home state of Illinois. In June 1992 Ralf and Judy made contact with Isaac Bitton who appointed them to oversee the restoration of the cemetery, in which the Câmara in Faro was cooperative. A rededication ceremony took place on 16 May, 1993 in the presence of Dr. Mário Soares, President of Portugal, and some 400 dignitaries and invited guests.
Since its restoration, the site has been improved by the addition of the small museum of the synagogue. One of the most moving additions to the site was the planting of 18 cypresses to celebrate the life of Dr Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Dr Mendes, as Portugal´s Consul in Bordeaux in June, 1940, was instrumental in saving the lives of around 30, 000 Jewish refugees when he gave them visas permitting them to travel to Lisbon. This act of courage cost him his job and his livelihood. The Jewish cemetery is the main vestige of the first post-inquisition Jewish presence in Portugals southernmost province. It is now included in the Ministry of Culture’s Roteiro Cultural de Portugal in recognition of the contribution of the Jews to the cultural life of Portugal through the ages.
This historic occasion of the first guided walk around the Jewish buildings of Faro was honoured by the presence of the Presidente of the Câmara of Faro, Eng José Macário Correia and the Director of the Department of Culture in Faro, Dra Cristina Pereira Neto. Our well-informed guide was Judy Pinto, who promised that in the near future she would lead more guided tours of the forgotten Jewish buildings of the city.
For more information: www.farojewishheritagecentre.org