BETWEEN APRIL 19 and 21, 1506, an angry mob of Lisbon citizens stormed the Jewish quarter of the city and massacred thousands of Jews. In neighbouring Spain, the so-called Catholic King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille carried out a mass persecution of the Jews. They forced many to either convert to Christianity or flee across the frontier to Morocco, despite the damaging financial consequences this had on the economy of the recently united country.
Now, it was the time of the Lisbon Jews …. During two bloody and fanatical days and nights, 4,000 of them, who for centuries had traded peacefully alongside their Christian neighbours, were dragged from their homes and murdered in the streets.
To mark the 500 years since the massacre took place, 4,000 candles were lit in Rossio Square on April 19 to remember the victims of this discriminate and senseless bloodshed that echoed the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, in which thousands of French Huguenot Protestants were slaughtered in France and the Low Countries.
The background to the persecution was when, in 1497, King Manuel of Portugal ordered the forced conversion of the Jews, most of whom lived in Lisbon.
The newly converted Jews, called New Christians, were given 20 years to shed all of their Jewish traditions and customs, however, many continued to secretly practice Judaism.
At the time, Lisbon had a large Jewish community and several Judarias, or Jewish streets, one of them in the quarter known as Pedreira, another in Rua Nova and others still in Carmo and Trindade. The Rua Nova was where the richest Jews lived and were protected by King João I in return for the prosperity they brought and the royal taxes they paid.
However, the wealth and special status of the New Christians attracted the envy of the ordinary people, especially during times of plague and economic difficulty such as happened in 1506.
The story goes that during Whitsun, a number of Christians and New Christians attended church to pray that the trials and tribulations of the plague might be lessened. A shaft of bright sunlight struck a golden crucifix in a side chapel during the service and glowed so brightly the congregation believed the spirit of God had answered their prayers.
Unfortunately, one hot headed New Christian played down the miracle and so incensed a group of women worshippers that they literally dragged him out of the church by the hair and beat him to death.
This provided the spark for a mass bloodbath led by two Dominican friars and some drunken French, German and Dutch sailors, who marched through the city shouting, “kill the heretics”, whipping the superstitious and plague-terrified people up into a frenzy.
Within 48 hours, Jewish men were clubbed to death, babies were murdered in their cradles and women were raped and killed. The King was not in the city at the time, but was furious with the mob and hanged, drew and quartered the ringleaders. The final death toll was as high as 4,000 and the Jewish community never fully recovered in Lisbon until the mid 19th century.
The event has inspired films and plays and more recently a best-selling book by Richard Zimler, called The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, which explores the traumatic events without drawing the necessary conclusions from a shameful episode in Portuguese history – one of religious tolerance.