Actor playing Captain Basto Barros in the movie 'Sefarad'
Actor playing Captain Basto Barros in the movie 'Sefarad'Comunidade Israelita do Porto/ Comunidade Judaica do Porto

One hundred years since its founding in 1923, the Jewish Community of Oporto is campaigning for the Portuguese State to posthumously reinstate its founder into the army, after he was unjustly expelled because of practicing Judaism. Arthur Carlos Barros Basto was a Portuguese Army officer who was declared “immoral” in June 1937 for helping returning descendants of Jews to become circumcised.

Leading the efforts is Captain Basto’s granddaughter who is continuing her mother and grandmother’s efforts to have him posthumously reinstated but is being met with excuses and ridiculous demands.

“It is incredible, but the state is now claiming that my grandfather needs to be alive, aged 136, and can only receive the posthumous reinstatement if he requests it personally”, said Isabel Barros Lopes, Captain Basto’s granddaughter and Vice-President of the Jewish Community of Oporto.

For decades, it was largely only Captain Basto’s closest relatives who fought against the injustice. However, in 2012, at the request of Barros Lopes, the Portuguese Parliament stated that Captain Basto had been the target of political and religious persecution and advised the government to reinstate him into the Portuguese Army. The following year, also at the request of Barros Lopes, the Army officially declared that Captain Basto could be posthumously reinstated as colonel, the rank he would have reached on the 2nd of November 1945, had he not been expelled.

“Nevertheless, despite these important decisions by Parliament and the Army, which are already over ten 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 Barros Lopes. “Words and declarations are not enough. We demand that this chapter ends with a full and official posthumous reinstatement of my grandfather into the Portuguese Army, with no more excuses.”

David Garrett, a member of the Board of the Jewish Community of Oporto in charge of legal affairs, explains that “at present the problem is not the Portuguese Army, but various state institutions, which try to deny any descendants’ legitimacy to apply for the posthumous reinstatement, as if the person on whose behalf they are fighting for is immortal, despite a law passed in 2018 which allows for posthumous reinstatements. If we do not receive an answer within the next few weeks we will lodge a complaint with the Portuguese Administrative Court, and if necessary, afterwards also to the European Court of Human Rights”.

Captain Barros Basto officially converted to Judaism in 1920 and together with around thirty Ashkenazi Jews founded the Jewish Community of Oporto. Between 1927 and 1934, Basto tried to help thousands of descendants of forcibly converted Jews, known as Bene Anusim, who lived in Portugal to convert to Judaism.

“To help them return to Judaism, my grandfather opened a yeshiva, a Jewish school, created a newspaper and asked Sephardic Jews around the world to pay for the construction of a large synagogue in Oporto, still considered the largest synagogue on the Iberian Peninsula”, said Isabel Barros Lopes.

However, in 1937, Captain Basto was the target of anonymous letters sent to the Portuguese authorities falsely accusing him of homosexuality. The police very soon discovered and declared such accusations to be false, but the State took advantage of the controversy and instead, he was expelled from the army for helping his students receive a Jewish circumcision.

Having been expelled from the Portuguese Army, Captain Basto spent the end of his life filled with bitterness and sadness. His daughter Miriam recalled that “When he came home, he would sit and bury his face in his knees, asking what he had done to deserve such a sad ending”. Yet he never lost hope in having his name cleared and returning to his beloved military service. “Before he died, he was still saying: ‘One day, I will get justice’”, said Miriam.

As well as demanding the posthumous reinstatement of Captain Basto, the Jewish Community of Oporto recently financed the filming and production of a feature film titled ‘Sefarad’, which tells the story of the Captain, who has been called “the Portuguese Dreyfus” and which can be viewed on Vimeo.

Today, the Jewish Community of Oporto comprises around one thousand Jews who originate from 30 countries. It has three synagogues, a Holocaust Museum, a Jewish Museum and kosher restaurants. This year, the Community will inaugurate its own cemetery, with the last one destroyed in 1497 at the time of the Edict of King Manuel I when the entire Portuguese Jewish community was forcibly converted and Judaism was banned in Portugal.