On board the ship Valk, about 600 Jews left Recife, in Pernambuco, expelled by the Portuguese. It was the end of the Dutch occupation in Brazil and also of the freedom to practice their religion.
They wanted to return to their homeland – Holland, where the worship of Judaism was allowed due to Calvinism. From there they had arrived more than two decades ago, when the Dutch conquered part of northeastern Brazil, with an eye on the production and trade of sugar.
But a storm threw them out of the way and the ship was wrecked by pirates.
The group was rescued by a French frigate and taken to Jamaica, then a Spanish colony, and ended up in prison because of the Spanish Inquisition.
But thanks to the intervention of the Dutch government, they were freed and, for financial reasons, part of them went to a destination closer than Europe: the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, today hui New York, then a simple trading post.
There, they formed the first Jewish community in North America and contributed to the development of the city. New York is currently the second city with the most Jews in the world, behind Tel Aviv, Israel.
But this rocky story does not begin in 1654, the year in which Portugal defeated the Dutch and regained control of the Northeast, thereby causing the expulsion of the Jews, fearing the Inquisition.
Jewish immigration to Brazil dates back to the time of the discovery, along with the so-called “new Christians”, of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula due to persecution by the Catholic Church .
In the largest Portuguese colony of the time, some of them abandoned Jewish practices. Others kept them hidden.
But it was in February 1630 with the Dutch occupation that Jews from the Netherlands, some of whom were the descendants of those who had fled the Iberian Peninsula to Holland, arrived in Brazil, says historian Daniela Levy, author. from the book “BBC News Brasil” From Recife to Manhattan: Jews in the Formation of New York “(Planeta), which required ten years of research. Levy first studied the subject of his master’s thesis at USP (University of São Paulo).
“The Jews who came to Brazil were the descendants of the new Christians who moved to the Netherlands a century after the conversion forced by the Inquisition. In this country, they were able to return to Judaism, recovering traditions and reorganizing themselves as a community ”. explains Levy.
Many of these Dutch Jews were part of the East India Company, a trading company founded in 1602 whose purpose was to end the economic monopoly of Spain and Portugal.
In Recife, they were hosted by relatives already established here, but they formed their own community, in which they could finally profess their religion in peace, devoting themselves to commerce, botany and engineering.
They built schools, synagogues and a cemetery, contributing to the enrichment of the cultural life of the region.
The first synagogue in the Americas, Kahal Zur Israel, was founded there, occupying one of the mansions on Rua do Bom Jesus, then called “Rua dos Jewish”, and reopened in 2002 after restoration.
Estimates of the number of Jews in Dutch times vary widely, between 350 and 1,450. The number is significant given that approximately 10,000 people lived in the region.
According to Levy, this was not only due to the fact that Holland was a Calvinist, allowing freedom of worship, but also thanks to Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, or Maurício de Nassau, the military man who ruled the Dutch colony in Recife. in 1637 to 1643.
“Holland was a Protestant country and opened its doors to other religions when it became independent from Spain. That’s when the new Christians left Portugal and went there. There were Calvinists. who had animosities against Jews, but in general Dutch policy was one of religious tolerance, ”Levy says.
“Maurício de Nassau, a great humanist, defended the idea that the good coexistence of groups of different religions would be more beneficial politically, and also from an economic point of view,” he adds.
In order to make Recife the “capital of the Americas”, Nassau has invested in major renovations, making it a cosmopolitan city. Although appreciated, he was eventually accused of administrative irregularity and was forced to return to Europe in 1644.
After the end of the Nassau administration, Holland began to demand payment of the debts of defaulting planters, which led to the Pernambucan uprising and which would later lead to the expulsion of the Dutch from Brazil, in 1654.
In practice, even after being defeated, the Dutch received 63 tons of gold from the Portuguese to bring the northeast under Lusitanian control in the 17th century.
The payment involved money, land allocations in India and control of trade in the so-called Sal de Setúbal, according to BBC News Brasil in 2015 Evaldo Cabral de Mello, historian and member of the ABL (Academia Brasileira de Letras ).
The amount would come to around £ 500million (R $ 4bn) in updated amounts, according to Sam Williamson, who did the math at the time at the request of the report. Williamsom is a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Chicago, United States, and co-founder of Measuring Worth, an interactive tool that allows you to compare the purchasing power of money through history.
The Jews who had settled here had no alternative. They received an ultimatum from the then governor of the region, Francisco Barreto de Menezes: three months.
Some of them fled Sertão. Others have decided to return to the Netherlands – starting the epic that opens this report.
After the storm with the pirates and the Jamaica prison, 23 of them, including families with children born in Brazil, left for New Amsterdam.
New York City demographic records show they arrived in September 1654, but were not “well received,” Levy says.
The then Dutch colony was insignificant, almost deserted, and ruled by a fanatic Calvinist, Peter Stuyvesant, who posed a number of difficulties for the newcomers.
“Stuyvesant didn’t like the Jews. He didn’t want to allow them in. But the Dutch Jewish community intervened on their behalf and they were accepted,” says Levy.
“The rest of the group – which had been trapped in Jamaica – would eventually join the 23 afterwards,” he adds.
Barely, the 23 Jews managed to survive thanks to the trade, which rapidly developed, attracting more Jews to the city, which would change its name (to New York) in 1664.
After the American Revolutionary War, their descendants were granted full citizenship. One of them, Benjamin Mendes (1745-1817) founded the New York Stock Exchange.
In the Big Apple, a monument, called Jewish Pilgrim Fathers, pays homage to Henrique, Lucena, Andrade, Costa, Gomes and Ferreira who contributed to the founding and development of the city.
Recently, this saga has given rise to a new book, “Arrancados da Terra – Pursued by the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula” (Companhia das Letras), by writer and journalist Lira Neto.
After the Dutch occupation, Jewish immigrants began to arrive in Brazil in 1810, mainly from Morocco. They settled mainly in Belém, where they founded the second oldest synagogue in Brazil, still in operation today. There they also built the country’s first Israeli cemetery.
Since then, Jewish immigration has intensified, peaking at its peak in the first half of the 20th century, after World War II. Besides the northeast, the south and the southeast were the main destinations. Most of the immigrants left Europe and some Arab countries.
National Jewish Immigration Day
This Thursday (18), the National Day of Jewish Immigration is celebrated.
The date that celebrates the contribution of the Jewish people to the formation of Brazilian culture was created by a bill drafted by then federal deputy Marcelo Itagiba (PSDB-RJ) and sanctioned in 2009.
To mark the occasion, Conib (Confederação Israelita do Brasil) will promote a rally live Itagiba and ex-chancellor Celso Lafer, professor and member of the ABL.
“Brazil made it possible for Jewish immigrants to rebuild their lives with welcome and freedom, and our small but diligent community returned the favor with much love and hard work. Here we create our families, we create businesses, we develop professional careers in the most diverse areas of expertise and knowledge ”, says Claudio Lottenberg, President of Conib.
“This is why the Brazilian Jewish community is so well integrated into the larger community of Brazilians, with diversity and dedication to the generous country that welcomed our parents and grandparents,” he adds.
Currently, Brazil has the second largest Jewish community in Latin America, with approximately 120,000 citizens.