Jewish history: Faro Jewish heritage centre.

Shortly after arriving at Armacoa de Pera, on the Algarve in Portugal, I was reading the Portuguese English paper and noticed in the “what’s on” columns for 13th December a snippet saying if we wanted an invite to a Chanukah party just phone….. So I did and spoke to a charming man who originally hailed from South Africa but had been living full time in Portimao on the Algarve for a number of years.

He and his wife are instrumental in setting up the Algarve Jewish Community , centrojudaicofaro@sapo.pt. They have been organising events for special occasions since their arrival in Portugal. He is also the director of the Faro Jewish Heritage Centre, Cemetery and Museum, www.farojewishheritagecentre.org, and offered to take us there.

The Centre is the only remaining vestige of the first post Inquisition Jewish presence in Portugal and the cemetery contains marble gravestones from the period 1838 to 1932. The small museum has many artefacts and original furniture from an 1820 synagogue together with a video, “Without the Past”.

Outside the walls of the cemetery are eighteen fine cypress trees which were planted on the official reopening of the centre in honour of the Portuguese Consul, Dr Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who is also recognised in "Yad Vashem" in Israel.  During World War Two , whilst in Bordeaux , France, he saved the lives of thirtythousand people by issuing Transit Visas through Portugal and on to freedom. The Hebrew numbers are written as letters of the alphabet and eighteen in Hebrew is “Chai” which translated is "Life”. The trees are flourishing, a reminder that life goes on outside of the cemetery walls but to remember and pay respect to the the dead by visiting the cemetery.

The cemetery was in a state of ruin when it was rediscovered and a small team of people over the past two decades, led by our host, have worked exceedingly hard to bring it up to the fine condition it is in now.

Besides organising and catering for the Jewish events the wife is kept busy embroidering beautiful cloths which are for sale in the museum.  The cloths are to cover the “Challah”, Sabbath bread  and “Matzah”, Passover unleavened bread.

The Chanukah party on the 13th December was very jolly, held in our hosts’ apartment.  There were people there who were visiting just like us but also residents from all over the Algarve , some permanent  and some who come and go from their country of origin. Fried foods were eaten, candles were lit and songs sang to remember the miracle of the holy oil in the temple which lasted for eight days although there was only enough for one when the Jewish people were besieged.

Jewish visitors to the area are always welcomed by this enthusiastic couple. We intend to keep in touch with them in the future as we have enjoyed our new friendship.

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