In the third lecture in the series on the lives of the Secret Jews (Anusim) at Netanya College, Gloria Mound shared her wide knowledge of the subject with the audience. She covered many interesting aspects of birth, marriage and death, but one item that was particularly unusual stuck in my mind. In a journal in the Hebrew University library she found an article entitled “The Jews in Portugal from 1773 to 1902,” by Cardozo de Bethencourt (The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol, 15, 1903 pp. 251-274) about the death of Anusim (Marranos) that described the practise of “suffocators” (abafadores).
These were men who as part of an organized group carried out the act of suffocation of Anusim when they were on their death-bed. When the family were sure that the person was dying, and before the priest arrived to administer the last rites of of the Church, they suffocated the person! This was not only to prevent them from refusing the Sacraments, but in case they inadvertently said something that might have raised the priest’s suspicion that they were unrepentent Jews. Then the whole family could have been arrested by the Inquisition and been tortured until they confessed and then hung or burnt at the stake. So scared were they of the possibility of this terrible fate that dying Anusim were suffocated!
Similarly young children were never informed of their background until they were old enough to keep their mouths shut. Telling the priest or anyone about any custom of the family, such as lighting candles in the cellar, or not eating pork, or hiding special books written in Hebrew, could result in torture and death. Often it was servant girls who noticed some such customs and gave the family away. Such were the conditions under which the descendents of Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism lived. It was the same as Nazism, a Jew-hatred that attempted to extirpate all vestiges of Jews from Spain, Portugal and their colonies. It is not widely known that the Inquisition tortured and murdered thousands of Secret Jews in Brazil and elsewhere in the Americas. According to records many were deported back to higher Official Courts of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal for trial and sentencing.
Evidence that families of ostensibly devout Catholics were in fact Anusim hiding their Jewish origins are to be found on grave stones in Catholic cemeteries from Spain and Mallorca to New Mexico. They used flowers in which they had a hidden magen David (six-pointed star). Some grave-stones had Hebrew letters obscured in the design and others had two candlesticks or a covering resembling the tallit. Once dead, the Anusim held a shiva for seven days, but tried to appear normal during that period although they did not eat meat nor cook, but others brought them food.
Anusim often wrote the family events of births, marriages and deaths in their family bibles, in this way they could maintain and document their family heritage. Marriages were arranged when the children were infants, so that inter-marriage could be prevented and the family heritage could be preserved. In this way the family could fend off offers of marriage from others by saying that their children were betrothed and their marriage was already arranged. One way to tell Anusim from other Catholics is that they usually named their children after their grandparents, which is a Jewish custom, that Christians did not do. Also, although children were routinely baptized on the third day after birth, children of Anusim were also given a party on the eighth day that was called Hadas or Fadas and if discovered by the Inquisition was always seen as a positive sign of Jewish practice. Often the circumcision of a male child was performed far away from the birthplace to avoid discovery. Similarly there was a celebration of “the night of the bride” that corresponded to Jewish custom.
In these ways, over hundreds of years, even unto today, the descendents of the Anusim or Secret Jews managed to retain their family customs, that many of them did not realize marked them as Jews.