A Poem for the Jews of Belmonte in Portugal

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

During my visit to Belmonte, Portugal, I met people whose families for centuries have hidden their Jewish heritage and who are finally free to reclaim their roots. Their stories moved and inspired me to write A Poem for the Jews of Belmonte in Portugal

It was while writing this poem that I became aware that I was still struggling with unresolved issues of early childhood experiences with prejudice and persecution. From an early age I learned to hide my identity as a Jew.  Numerous times I was humiliated, beaten up, and, worse yet, afraid of being killed. You see, I was born in Casablanca, Morocco, to loving parents, where both my maternal and paternal grandparents, of noble spirit, were revered in their Jewish community. 

As a child, while spending a week of summer vacation with my maternal grandparents, I saw my grandfather, Moshe Abuhatziera (Zechrono Lebracha), returning home from the synagogue after an incident of persecution, an experience which left me even more traumatized.

On a Sabbath day, on his way home from the synagogue, he was beaten up. His white beard was pulled. Blood was all over his white Shabbat clothes. Seeing my beloved grandfather this way, I felt a specific rage, which as a child I never experienced before. Yet no words of anger or revenge ever came from my grandfather’s mouth. Instead, he addressed my anger with the following, and with a gentle pat on my head: “Dear child, don’t hate. Muslims are our brothers and Gentiles are our cousins. These people didn’t know what they were doing.” 

These words from my grandfather have inspired me on both personal and professional levels in the way I view the world.

Eventually, my family fled Casablanca in the dark of night, with only the clothes on our backs, to France and then, finally, to Israel. For the past 50 years, I have lived in the United States.

Because of the people of Belmonte, I have had a chance to face my past.

I have an affinity with the people of Belmonte and genuine respect for their tenacity in overcoming the obstacles they faced over 500 years in order to preserve their identities as Jews. Finally, they are free to practice their Jewish heritage.

Their story saddened me and their tenacity inspired me. This poem is my effort to pay homage to them and for me to master my own early trauma of persecution:

More than 500 years ago
Jews lived and died resisting conversion.
Here, hidden in the antiquity of Belmonte,
I find an authentic living miracle.
I walk through the labyrinth of the city,
With its ancient steep maze of alleyways,
Among the narrow streets, houses from a bygone era,
Colorful flowers like gems bestowing
Their beauty upon their surrounding.
Some people look out their windows
While others sit on wooden benches in front of their homes
Gazing at strangers passing by.

As we reach our destination, before our eyes is a placard saying,
“Museum Judaico De Belmonte.”
We are welcomed by Mr. Levy, our guide.
With sadness I learn about the atrocities
Inflicted on the Jews during the Portuguese Inquisition,
Heart wrenching stories that
My emotions can no longer absorb,
My mind can’t comprehend.

In 1453 King Manuel l, the Church
And Isabella, the Queen of Spain,
Co-opted God’s final authority on human destiny.
The Jews once again became sacrificial lambs.
A royal decree was issued.
In droves, from all over, Jews came to Lisbon Port.
They were given an ultimatum:
Convert to Christianity
Or death will be your fate.
Those who held onto their Jewish beliefs
Were burned alive.
Children were snatched from their families,
Breaking their parents’ hearts and souls,
Taken on a journey unknown
Never to be seen again.
Some parents, who did not want
Their children apostatized,
With a bleeding heart and tears in their eyes
Threw their young into wells.
Innocent children who died in vain
Forever in the memory of their people will remain.

Manuel, in league with the Church,
Starved the Jews nearly to death.
Dirty holy water fraught with malevolent intent
Splashed on helpless faces.
Mass coerced conversion took place.
As the darkness on earth and heaven loomed over the Jews,
With half-frozen tongues
They prayed in a silent scream.
With copious tears, their eyes sought heaven,
Their words piercing through celestial doors
Tightly closed against the
Agonizing Chosen ones.
The stars and clouds seemed to bleed,
Heaven above remained silent.
The Jews had their doubts,
Yet tenaciously believed
God was not dead, only ominously mute.

All my senses are overwhelmed with anguish.
Tears cascade down my face,
Knots in my throat.
I shake with intense rage,
Like a leaf on a tree shivering from cold drops of rain,
Mourning the decimation of innocent Jewish souls
Whose only crime was being Jews.
I want to scream so loud,
Let the reverberation
Reach the bottom of the sea,
The sky’s infinity.
Words congeal on my tongue,
I can’t find words
To piece together a fractured world.
I want to forget but I cannot forget,
The mantra goes on in my mind.
The past always intrudes on the present.
I will no longer numb my psyche,
But face the past in service of the future.
I must remember, everything must be told.
Like an embryo, slowly, words come to life.
I move on to see the rest of the exhibition.

A memorial plaque hangs on the wall
Dedicated to the victims who perished in the Portuguese Inquisition,
Their names engraved for eternity on a dark stone.
Among many other precious artifacts
I see several stones engraved with Hebrew letters
Dating back to the 13th Century, indicating that Jews had lived in Portugal
Hundreds of years before the Inquisition.
Beautiful mezuzot which Jews, devoured by fears,
Never hung on their doors.
In pockets they remained hidden,
To be kissed only in secrecy.
I find paintings depicting daily rituals of Jewish life,
The rite of passage from birth to death:
A wedding under a chupa,
A table embellished
With challah, a cup of wine for Kiddush,
And Shabbat candles
Reminding the Jews in hiding
To strive against the darkness,
Bring into balance the
Frailty and beauty of their lives.
These artifacts in the museum are testimonial evidence that
Despite appalling atrocities and waves of tyranny that tried
To obliterate Jewish culture and spirit,
The Jews maintained their tradition.
For five fear–ridden centuries
In hiding, they clung with passion to their roots.
On the mountain of Belmonte.

After leaving the museum, on our way to the synagogue,
My heart beats with pride when I see in the midst of town
A menorah standing proud and tall,
A living testimony that despite the forces of evil,
The Jewish tenacity for survival triumphed once again.
The Menorah, once in the Holy Temple,
Represents eternal light, wisdom, and divine inspiration
To spread the light the of godliness to the entire world.
But this menorah,
This menorah in front of me, commemorates
The calamities that befell the Jewish people
Before, during, and after the Portuguese Inquisition
And, still raw in memory, the systematic annihilation
Of my people during the Holocaust.
This menorah carries the legacy to bear witness
To all the Jews who perished in anguish,
Whose voices were never heard.
And with love and pride it salutes those who survived,
A menorah for future generations,
Affirming human values in a disintegrated world.

Questions run through my mind,
No answers to be found, only more questions.
How will humanity learn to sublimate
The thanatos, the death instinct, that leads to fear, hate, and war
And to nourish the eros, the life instinct, which will create
A new culture that strives for world peace?
If we don’t, the human race will cease.

Once in the synagogue
I could envision how the Jews in Belmonte
In hiding, quietly prayed to God
With sadness beyond words,
And with genetic memory
Imagined that they were present at the Wailing Wall,
Praying for freedom and triumph over evil,
Breaking the chains enslaving their souls,
Striving to regain their humanity.

Today, a renaissance flowers in Belmonte.
The perennial fear of being a Jew is slowly diminishing.
Jews can exercise their freedom of choice.

Dear Jews of Belmonte,
This is what I dream for you:
Today, when you pray, whether in the synagogue
or in your own hearts,
Let your prayers be loud and clear,
Let your voices in unison vibrate, reach
Ears and hearts far and near.

On your way home after synagogue
As you stroll the streets,
Fearlessly greet each other
With the ancient and precious words,
“Shabbat Shalom ”or “Shalom Aleichem.”

Never again should any group of people
Regardless of the color of their skin,
Religion, race, age, gender or creed
Suffer malevolence from their own kin.
May our way of life always echo the precious words,
Shalom, Salama, Peace.

Born in Morocco and raised in France and Israel, Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner has lived in Manhattan for 50 years. She is a psychoanalyst with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and family therapy. A member of the New York City Audubon Society, she loves photographing birds, flowers, and anything visual that creates nostalgia for what we were, what we are, and what we always will be: part of nature.  Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.


Filed under Family history, Jewish identity, poetry, Portuguese Jewry

3 responses to “A Poem for the Jews of Belmonte in Portugal

  1. J Sullivan

    I enjoyed reading this wonderful poem that transports you across time and place.

  2. Nancy Funke

    What an emotional journey. Thank you for sharing this experience. Your Grandfather was an incredibly forgiving man. What an inspiration!

  3. Marilyn Sprecher

    This poem was beautiful. Thank you for sending it to me. You are and always will be an incredible woman. I am so happy to be your friend.. Marilyn Sprecher

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