Samuel Schwarz, the Polish engineer who "rediscovered" Portugal’s Jewish community


Samuel Schwarz (1880-1953) was born into an orthodox Jewish family in Poland, the eldest of ten sons. Their father was involved in the Jewish community and was an active Zionist who participated in the First Zionist Congress.

Interior of the medieval Synagoge of Tomar, restored by Samuel Schwarz

After studying in Paris, Samuel traveled across Europe as a mining engineer. His work took him across Europe, from Azerbaijan to Spain, Italy, Poland and England. His wide language skills (Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, English, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese) helped his travel. While living in Spain, Schwarz became interested in Jewish history of the region, publishing articles on the topic between 1907-1910.

However, his work in Western Europe was disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. No longer able to travel freely, he and his new wife Agatha Barbasch, whom he had married in April 1914, moved to Lisbon, Portugal. They settled in Lisbon, with Samuel traveling to work with the tungsten and tin mines in Vilar Formoso and Belmonte.

Samuel and Agatha were involved in the expat Jewish community in Lisbon, but since Jews had been formally expelled as part of the Inquisition centuries earlier, believed there was no native community to speak of. In 1910, however, the First Portuguese Republic had been established, abolishing the centuries-old monarchy, allowing greater religious and intellectual freedom.

Samuel Schwarz (1880-1953)

A combination of Schwarz's interest in crypto-Judaism, as well as his work in the northern regions of Portugal, took him to Belmonte. There, he came across Hebrew inscriptions, which he hypothesized were remnants of an old synagogue.

Whilst making new connections, he was warned by a Christian merchant not to do business with Baltasar Pereira de Sousa, having heard rumors that he was a Jew. Schwarz was immediately intrigued, and visited Sousa, who admitted that his family had covertly practiced Judaism.

Through Sousa, Schwarz met the wider crypto-Jewish community. They were suspicious of him at the start, having practiced in secrecy for generations without revealing their identity to outsiders, but he convinced them of his Jewishness by reciting the Shema and God's name. He began to study Belmonte's Jewish community, documenting their unique customs and prayers. They covered their Shabbat candles with jars to prevent the glow being seen from outside, and they hung sausages outside their windows to avoid suspicion that they kept kosher. They not only fasted on Yom Kippur (though on 11th rather than 10th of Tishrei), but also the Fast of Esther, the day before Purim; Esther's story particularly resonated with crypto-Jews as she too had to conceal her Judaism. Some practices which were particularly ostentatious, such as circumcision or ritual slaughter, were impossible to maintain. However, generations of endogamy had created a tight-knit community which was able to survive centuries of persecution and keep some core traditions alive.

Hebrew edition of "The New Christians in Portugal in the 20th Century"

So began Schwarz's second career as a historian, publishing on Jewish inscriptions in Portugal and his first book in 1925 titled The New Christians in Portugal in the 20th Century ('New Christians' was a common term for Jews who converted to Christianity through coercion). He would continue to publish articles and books on the topic throughout his life.

In 1920, Portuguese archaeologists uncovered a synagogue in the town of Tomar, which was dated to the pre-Inquisition era. Schawrz bought the building in 1923, beginning a project of restoring it. He donated the building to the Portuguese government in 1939, on condition that it be turned into a museum of Portuguese Jewry. In exchange for their donation, Samuel, Agatha and their daughter were granted Portuguese citizenship, saving their lives during the Holocaust. Many of their Polish relatives on both sides, meanwhile, did not survive. Samuel's repeated attempts to obtain Portuguese visas for them failed.

Schwarz remained in Portugal until his death in 1953, upon which his extensive library (including over 10,000 rare books), was sold to the Portuguese government. The collection is now held at the Samuel Schwarz Library at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

Jewish Museum of Belmonte

The Jewish Museum of Belmonte, which was opened in 2005, dedicated a gallery in honor of Schwarz in 2008. As recently as 2019, a statue was erected and a town square in Belmonte was named after him, remembering his contributions both to Belmonte and its Jewish community.

By Sylvie Hodes