In 1492, four families in Belmonte, Portugal began to live secret
lives that would last for generations. Like many Jews on the Iberian
Peninsula, in response to the Inquisition,
which forbade the practice of Judaism, these families chose to
outwardly profess Christianity while secretly living as Jews. However,
whereas other conversos* either left for safer lands or slowly
assimilated, these four families married among themselves and remained
committed to their secret Jewish lives. And, slowly, the clandestine
converso community of Belmonte grew.

For generations, the Belmonte conversos lit candles in secret on Friday
nights, celebrated major Jewish holidays on a schedule delayed from the
common Jewish calendar and avoided pork, rabbit, scaleless fish and
food made with blood.

In 1917, a Galician mining engineer named Samuel Schwartz came to
the region of Belmonte for work. Finding himself in a town with Jewish
roots – there is a synagogue foundation stone dating back to 1297 – was
interesting to him. Discovering that there were conversos was shocking
for both sides. The conversos themselves did not believe that Schwartz
was Jewish until they recognized God’s name when he recited the Shema.

Even after the Belmonte conversos were discovered, it took decades
for them to feel comfortable going public. In fact, it was just over 500
years after the Inquisition when the Belmonte conversos reached out to
the wider Jewish community. Israel sent teachers, and Jewish tourists
flocked to Belmonte. Many of the conversos formally converted to
Judaism, but some chose to remain living their secret-style lives. Today
in Belmonte, there is a small synagogue (Beit Eliahu) and a Jewish

*also referred to as marranos and annusim

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