- Luis Barrucho
- BBC News Brazil in London
On board the Valk ship, some 600 Jews left Recife, in Pernambuco, Brazil, expelled by the Portuguese. It was the end of the Dutch occupation in Brazil and also of the freedom to practice their religion.
They wanted to return to their homeland, the Netherlands, where the cult of Judaism was allowed thanks to Calvinism.
They had arrived there more than two decades earlier, when the Dutch conquered part of northeastern Brazil, with their sights set on the production and trade of sugar.
But a storm pushed them out of the way and their ship was looted by pirates.
The group was rescued by a French frigate and taken to Jamaica – then a Spanish colony – and ended up in prison because of the Spanish Inquisition.
However, thanks to the intervention of the Dutch government, they were released and, for economic reasons, part of them went to a destination closer than Europe: the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which would later be called New York, and was then a mere trading post.
There they formed the North America’s first Jewish community and contributed to the development of the city.
New York is currently the second city with the largest number of Jews in the world, behind Tel Aviv, in Israel.
Jewish immigration to Brazil dates back to the time of discovery, with the so-called “new Christians”, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity on the Iberian Peninsula due to the persecution of the Catholic Church.
In the largest Portuguese colony at the time, some of them abandoned Jewish practices. Others kept them hidden.
But it was in February 1630, with the Dutch occupation, when the Jews from the Netherlands – some of whom were descendants of those who had fled from the Iberian Peninsula to the Netherlands – arrived in Brazil.
This is stated by historian Daniela Levy, author of the book “From Recife to Manhattan: Jews in the formation of New York” (Editorial Planeta), which required 10 years of research.
“The Jews who arrived in Brazil were descendants of the new Christians who moved to the Netherlands a century after the forced conversion by the Inquisition. In that country they were able to return to Judaism, recovering traditions and reorganizing as a community,” explains Levy .
Many of these Dutch Jews were part of the East India Company, a trading company founded in 1602 whose aim was to end the economic monopoly of Spain and Portugal.
In Recife, they were hosted by relatives already established there, but they formed their own community, in which they could, at last, profess their religion in peace, dedicating himself to commerce, botany and engineering.
They built schools, synagogues and a cemetery, contributing to the enrichment of the cultural life of the region.
There it was founded America’s first synagogue, Kahal Zur Israel, which occupied one of the mansions on “Rua do Bom Jesus” (Street of the Good Jesus), which would later be renamed “Rua dos Judeus” (Street of the Jews), and reopened in 2002 after its restoration.
Estimates of the number of Jews who lived in Brazil during the Dutch period vary widely: between 350 and 1450.
The number is significant considering that 10,000 people lived in the region.
According to Levy, this was not only due to the fact that the Netherlands was Calvinist, which allowed freedom of worship, but also had to do with Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, or Maurício de Nassau, the military man who ruled the colony. Dutch woman in Recife from 1637 to 1643.
“The Netherlands was a Protestant nation and opened its doors to other religions when it became independent from Spain. It was then that the new Christians left Portugal and went there. There were some Calvinists who had animosities against Jews, but in general, Dutch politics it was one of religious tolerance, “says Levy.
“Maurício de Nassau, a great humanist, defended the view that the good coexistence of groups of different religions it would be more beneficial politically, and also from an economic point of view, “he adds.
To make Recife the “capital of the Americas,” Nassau invested in major renovations, turning it into a cosmopolitan city.
Although he was well liked, he was eventually accused of administrative irregularities and forced to return to Europe in 1644.
After the end of the Nassau administration, the Netherlands began to demand the liquidation of the debts of the delinquent settlers, which led to the so-called Pernambucana Insurrection, which would culminate, later, with the expulsion of the Dutch from Brazil, in 1654.
In practice, even after being defeated, the Dutch received 63 tons of gold from the Portuguese to return the northeast to Lusitanian control in the 17th century.
Jews who had put down roots in Brazil found themselves with no alternative. They received an ultimatum of the then governor of the region, Francisco Barreto de Menezes: they had to leave in three months.
Some of them fled elsewhere. Others decided to return to the Netherlands, beginning the epic that we related at the beginning of this note.
After the pirate attack and prison in Jamaica, 23 of them, including families with children born in Brazil, left for New Amsterdam.
New York City population records show that they arrived in September 1654, but were not “well received”, dice Levy.
The then Dutch colony was insignificant, almost deserted, and ruled by a fanatical Calvinist, Peter Stuyvesant, who imposed various obstacles on the newcomers.
“Stuyvesant didn’t like Jews. He didn’t want to let them in. But the Dutch Jewish community interfered on their behalf and they were accepted,” says Levy.
“The rest of the group, who had been trapped in Jamaica, would eventually join the 23 afterwards,” he adds.
The 23 Jews barely survived from trade, which soon grew, attracting more Jews to the city, which in 1664 would change its name to New York.
After the American War of Independence, his descendants achieved full citizenship. One of them, Benjamin Mendes (1745-1817) founded the New York Stock Exchange.
In the Big Apple, a monument, called The Jewish Pilgrim Fathers, pays tribute to Henrique, Lucena, Andrade, Costa, Gomes and Ferreira who helped found and develop the city.
This saga recently inspired a new book, “Torn from the Earth – Persecuted by the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula”, by the Brazilian writer and journalist Lira Neto (Editorial Companhia das Letras).
Jews in Brazil
After the Dutch occupation, Jewish immigrants began arriving in Brazil in 1810, coming mainly from Morocco.
They settled mainly in Belém, where they founded the second oldest synagogue in Brazil, which is still in full operation today.
There they also built the first Jewish cemetery in the country.
Thereafter, Jewish immigration intensified, culminating in its peak in the first half of the 20th century, after World War II.
Besides the Northeast, the South and the Southeast were the main destinations. Most of the immigrants came from Europe and some Arab countries.
Currently, Brazil has the second largest Jewish community in Latin America, with around 120,000 citizens.
To celebrate the contribution of the Jewish people to the formation of Brazilian culture, in 2009 a law was passed that commemorates March 18 as the National Day of Jewish Immigration.
Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC News Mundo. Download the latest version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.