12 February 2021

Remembering the Holocaust
in a new museum in Porto

The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Porto is one of the largest in western Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The first museum on the Iberian Peninsula specifically dedicated to the Shoah or the Holocaust opened in Porto in Portugal last month. The Holocaust Museum of Porto is the creation of the local Jewish community, some of whose members lost family in the Shoah. It depicts the Holocaust in detail, alongside the story of the Jewish refugees who arrived in Porto between 1940 and 1941, hoping to flee to the US.

Portugal was neutral during World War II and gave refuge to thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and their allies and occupied territories.

The museum combines traditional exhibits and information panels with installations and audio-visual presentations. One section includes a reproduction of barracks at Auschwitz, including part of the Arbeit Macht Frei gate.

The exhibits include artefacts and documents left by Jews who sought refuge in Porto. They include two Sifrei Torah presented to the city’s synagogue by Jewish refugee families.

The museum has a cinema, study centre, conference hall, and a memorial hall with the names of thousands of people who perished during the Holocaust written on its walls.

The museum opened at a small ceremony on 20 January, attended by some members of the local Jewish community, and by the Bishop of Porto and the President of the Muslim Community.

The educational activities at the museum will be coordinated with the state-led Nunca Esquecer (‘Never Forget’) project, which aims to promote initiatives that foster knowledge about the Holocaust, the Portuguese victims, and the Portuguese citizens who helped victims of the Nazis.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, saved thousands of people fleeing from France after the Nazi invasion in 1940 and was recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1966. His home in Cabanas de Viriato, Portugal, is being renovated as a museum and cultural space.

The museum curator Hugo Vaz is also the curator of the Jewish Museum, which opened in Porto 2015 in the synagogue complex and tells the complex history of Jews in Porto. The Jewish community in Porto dates back to ancient Roman times. At the Inquisition, Jews were expelled from Portugal in 1496, putting an end to open Jewish life for centuries. Jews started to settle again in Porto in the late 19th century. A modest cultural revival in the 1920s and 1930s was led by Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Bastos, who tried to bring back to Judaism the conversos or descendants of Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition.

The Portuguese and Spanish congregation at Bevis Marks Synagogue in London and other members of the Sephardic diaspora funded the building of a synagogue in Porto. The art deco-style Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue opened in 1938. It is set in a large garden filled with towering palms, and is one of the largest synagogues in western Europe. It was named after the family of Sir Elly Kadoorie of Shanghai, who provided much of the funding. Lady Laura Mocatta Kadoorie was a descendant of Sephardic Jews from Portugal.

Today, the Jewish community of Porto has over 500 members from 30 countries. This growth follows a law in 2013 and 2015 that grants Portuguese citizenship to anyone who can show they have Jewish-Portuguese origins.

The generosity and sense of community and unity that has helped to rebuild the Jewish community in Porto reminds me in my reflections this Friday evening that this is Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Adar, which begins at sundown this evening (12 February 2021) and ends at nightfall tomorrow (13 February 2021).

Shabbat Shekalim (‘Sabbath [of] Shekels’ שבת שקלים) is read in preparation for Purim, and each adult male Jew is asked to contribute half of a Biblical shekel to charitable, educational purposes in their community (see Exodus 13: 11-16; II Kings 12: 10-16).

The egalitarian nature of this contribution is emphasised: ‘the rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.’ The requirement that all individuals contribute equally to the community helped develop a sense of unity crucial to the new nation created by the Exodus.

Shabbat Shalom

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