Brazilian Genealogist Speaks

Guilherme Faiguenboim addressed an impromptu meeting of Kulanu members in Silver Spring in June. President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Brazil, he was in the Washington area to attend the annual International Seminar on Jewish Genealogy.

Faiguenboim reported that nine-tenths of the inquiries made to his society are from non-Jews and that, while his reference books say much about Jews of Russian, German, and Sephardic descent, he did not have any information about Marrano families.

He soon discovered that a teacher named Valadares, from a humble family in the Brazilian countryside, had a vast knowledge of Marrano genealogy. Valadares, who travels 80 miles to Sao Paulo every two weeks to read from the society’s library, now handles inquiries about Marrano genealogy for the society.

In his talk, Faiguenboim reviewed the history of the Portuguese and Brazilian Inquisitions of the 15th and 16th centuries. He discovered that in 1496, the year the Inquisition came to Portugal, 30-40 percent of the Portuguese population was Jewish (many had come from Spain in 1492). These Jews were automatically converted to Catholicism by law; there was no expulsion for the first 100 years. He found that 80 percent of the sugar cane farmers in Brazil were Jews. The Inquisition in Brazil was responsible for the persecution of 40,000 Jews; persecution included burning, wearing of a masked hood, incarceration, brain-washing, and torture.

According to Faiguenboim, the high illiteracy rate in Brazil today can be traced to the fact that Portuguese and Brazilian Catholicism did not emphasize reading the Bible. It was dangerous to find even the New Testament in your house, he said. The faithful were just supposed to listen to the priest at mass. Factors leading to arrest during the Inquisition in Brazil included owning a Bible, cleaning the house on Friday, and abstaining from pork.

After 1750, with the Inquisition gone, crypto-Jews in Brazil continued certain customs — giving children biblical names and avoiding church except for birth, marriage, and death ceremonies — even though they did not consider themselves Jewish.

Tracing ancestry is difficult for descendants of Marranos today. Surnames were often changed. For example, when a child was baptized, he received the surname of his godfather. “It’s a genealogical mess!” he exclaims.

When people write to him that they have a strong attraction to Judaism and “perhaps” have Jewish ancestors, he advises them to convert according to halacha.