The first museum on the Iberian Peninsula specifically dedicated to the Shoah has opened in the city of Porto (Oporto), in northern Portugal.
Created by the local Jewish community, some of whose members lost family in the Shoah, the Holocaust Museum of Porto depicts in detail the history, development, and aftermath of the Holocaust, including the story of the Jewish refugees who arrived in Porto between 1940 and 1941 hoping to flee to the Americas.
Portugal was neutral during World War II and gave refuge to thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany and its allies or occupied territories.
The museum combines traditional exhibits and information panels with installations and audio-visual presentations.
One section features the reproduction of barracks at the Auschwitz death camp; there is also a reproduction of part of the Arbeit Macht Frei gate.
“Visitors will be able to walk through some areas designed to create a sensorial effect of the real presence in the space,” museum curator Hugo Vaz told the local media site sabado.pt.
Exhibits also include artifacts and documents left by Jews who sought refuge in Porto. Among them are two sifrei Torah presented to the city’s synagogue by Jewish refugee families.
The museum also has a cinema, a study center, a conference hall, and a memorial hall with the names of thousands who perished during the Holocaust written on its walls.
Watch a video presentation of the museum:
The museum was inaugurated with a small ceremony on January 20, but its opening to visitors has been postponed indefinitely due to Covid-19 measures. The inauguration was attended only by some members of the local Jewish community, and by the Bishop of Porto and the President of the Muslim Community.
The stated mission of the new Holocaust museum is to promote education about the Shoah, by initiatives such as teacher training programs, exhibitions, support for academic research, and school visits. Educational activities will be coordinated in collaboration with the state-led “Nunca Esquecer” (Never Forget) project, approved by the Portuguese Council of Ministers in July 2020, which aims to promote initiatives that foster knowledge about the Holocaust, its Portuguese victims, and also Portuguese citizens who helped those persecuted by the Nazi regime.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, for example, saved thousands of people fleeing from France after the Nazi invasion in 1940 and was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1966. A Virtual Museum tells his story, and his home in Cabanas de Viriato, Portugal, is currently at the center of a renovation project that aims to open it as a memorial museum and cultural space.
“It is important to teach about the Holocaust in Portugal,” said Dara Jeffries, a member of the council of the Jewish community of Porto. “At school, my brother and I were the only Jews. The topic was never addressed or taught, and only a few knew what the Holocaust was.”
The Holocaust Museum also has established connections with other Holocaust Museums in Europe and elsewhere, in particular with those in Hong Kong, Washington D.C., Paris, and Moscow.
“The collaboration with other Holocaust museums ranges from the exchange of experiences and practices to the possibility of organizing conferences in our museum in Porto,” Hugo Vaz told JHE.
Vaz is also the curator of the Jewish community’s Jewish Museum, which opened in 2015 in the synagogue complex and tells the complex history of Jews in Porto. The programs of the new Holocaust museum, the Jewish community says, will form part of an educational outreach strategy already carried out by that museum.
The Jewish community in Porto has roots believed to date back to ancient Roman times, but the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Portugal in 1496 put an end to open Jewish life for centuries.
Jews started to settle again in Porto in the late nineteenth century and saw a modest cultural revival in the 1920s and 1930s led by army captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Bastos, who tried to bring back to Judaism the descendants of Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition.
Aiming to attract the so-called “conversos,” the Portuguese and Spanish congregation of London, together with other members of the Sephardic diaspora, funded the construction of a synagogue in Porto. Set in a large garden filled with towering palms, the art deco-style Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue was inaugurated in 1938. It was named after the family of businessman and philanthropist Sir Elly Kadoorie of Shanghai, which provided much of the funding. Sir Elly’s wife, Lady Laura Mocatta Kadoorie, was a descendant of Sephardic Jews from Portugal.
Until 10 years ago, the Jewish community of Porto numbered only about 30 members, according to the community. Today it exceeds 500 members from 30 countries; this growth came mainly, the community says, thanks to a 2013/2015 law that granted Portuguese citizenship to anyone who could demonstrate having Jewish-Portuguese origins.
By Jewish Heritage Europe