Saturday, July 30, 2016

Secret Celebration: How Spanish Jews Kept Purim Under the Inquisition

Secret Celebration: How Spanish Jews Kept Purim Under the Inquisition

Despite merciless persecution, Jews found a way to observe Purim during the Spanish Inquisition.

In 1391, anti-Jewish massacres swept Spain, where Jews were given the choice of converting to Christianity or being murdered. Some 20,000 Spanish Jews became Christians during this time period and many more continued to convert throughout the 1400s under duress. However, many of these Jews who were converted under the sword continued to practice Judaism in secret. This greatly disturbed the Spaniards, who saw that many closet Jews continued to be part of the top echelons of Spanish society, like they had during the Golden Age of Muslim Spain.

Thus, in 1492 Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand expelled from their kingdom the Jews who continued to practice their faith. Previously, the Spanish Inquisition was established to hunt down Jews who continued to practice their faith in secret. In total, 165,000 Jews fled Spain, with 50,000 baptized and an additional 20,000 perishing while attempting to leave Spain in 1492. Meanwhile, 31,912 “heretics” were burned at the stake in Spain, with an additional 17,659 burnt in effigy. For secret Jews, known as Anusim, Conversos or Marranos, who lived under the yoke of the Inquisition and thus were in constant fear that they would be discovered, the Purim holiday had a special meaning since Queen Esther was also forced to practice Judaism in secret initially.

For the Anusim of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, Purim was not a festive day full of children making noise and adults consuming alcohol. If these Jews celebrated in this manner, they would be discovered by the Inquisition. Instead, the Anusim, whose very existence was always in peril, would fast for three days, just as Queen Esther fasted for three days when the Jews of Persia were threatened with annihilation.

Spanish Megillat Esther

Scroll of Esther with Spanish translation (

As a result, the Inquisition used the Fast of Esther as an indicator of Jews engaging in forbidden religious activity. Furthermore, a three day fast was not considered healthy. According to Gabriel de Granada, a 13-year-old boy interrogated by the Inquisition in Mexico in 1643, the women of his family would divide the three day fast between them. Some would fast on the first day, while others would fast on the second and third. Leonor de Pina, who was arrested by the Portuguese Inquisition in 1619, recorded that her daughters would fast for three days during daylight, while eating during the night. When they ate, they would refrain from eating meat.

Scholars of the Anusim maintain that the secret Jews of Spain, Portugal and Latin America viewed private fasting for three days as a substitute for the mitzvah of having a public Megillah reading in the synagogue and sending gifts of food to family and friends, which were actions that would have caught the attention of the Inquisition. In fact, Professor Moshe Orfali of Bar Ilan University asserted that the Anusim fasted quite often, which they viewed as a way of demonstrating their remorse for being forced to violate the Torah.

Interestingly, the Anusim also transformed Queen Esther into “Saint Esther,” as a means of disguising their Jewish faith from the Inquisition. Anusim frequently offered all of their prayers to her. Thus, even though the Anusim lost much of their Jewish heritage over the centuries when the Inquisition was in place, they never forgot Queen Esther or the words in the Megillah which proclaim, “These days of Purim will never leave the Jews, nor will their remembrance ever be lost to their descendants.”

By: Rachel Avraham

How a Maharaja from Gujarat housed 1,000 Polish child refugees during World War II

How a Maharaja from Gujarat housed 1,000 Polish child refugees during World War II

Posted on Apr 21 2016 - 11:45am by Rosie Fernandez



In 1941, as Europe was fraught in an ugly World War, an Indian king showed compassion to Polish child refugees. Between 1941-42, 1,000 Polish children were deported from Poland to Siberia. These children, mostly orphans, travelled to India from Siberia, where Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji of erstwhile Nawanagar (Gujarat), provided shelter to them near his capital Jamnagar.




A group of Polish children pose with Raja Jam Saheb in Balachadi, Gujarat, in 1945.


An exhibition titled, Passage to India: The Wartime Odyssey of Polish Children and the Good Maharaja will trail this touching tale of humanism during the World War II. The event will put on display at the UN next week.

In February 1940, Joseph Stalin initiated mass deportations of Poles to Siberia. World War II was taking over Europe and the Soviet Union, and Poland found itself in the claws of not one, but two occupiers: Stalin and Hitler. The Nazis were already carrying out methodical killing in Poland’s German-occupied territories.



From Tehran, large ships transported refugees to Africa, India, Mexico and other locales.


In Poland’s Soviet-occupied regions, large masses, that included several villages, were packed off in boxed cars with no supply of food and water. They were deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia Gulags.

In 1941, as Germany gained stronger foothold, the Soviet Union changed tactics, and joined the Allies. Britian, a part of the Allied group, decided to release the Poles, and transport them to India, which was a British colony then. Gradually, batches of sick and undernourished Polish children arrived in convoys.




Jam Saheb was informed about the situation of Polish refugees by pianist Ignacy Jan Padrewski, the head of Polish government in exile in London.

The Indian National Congress was not very pleased that Britain had drawn India into the war conflict. Nonetheless, several Indian rajas of the princely states came forward to play host to the refugees. Jam Saheb Digvijaysinghji, who ruled Nawanagar, and was a member of the Imperial War Council, was informed about the situation by Ignacy Jan Padrewski, the head of Polish government in exile in London.

Travelling for a month, the children arrived in India via Persia in April, 1942, and were housed temporarily in Mumbai’s Bandra area. The little refugees gained their health in their 3-month-long stay in Bandra, and picked up basic English language skill, enough to carry simple conversations. Shortly after, they arrived in Nawanagar village of Balachadi and found themselves in roomy barracks.



A group of Polish boys in Bandra in Mumbai, Maharashtra, in 1942.


Anuradha Bhattacharjee, a scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University, says, “India, though not sovereign at the time and not at all prosperous, became the first country in the world to accept and offer war-duration at her own cost to the hapless Polish population,” she said.

Balachadi was one among the several places that housed World War II refugees. The British government brought in hundreds of thousands of displaced people from across the world: Jews from Central Europe. But some Maltese, Balkan and Anglo-Burmese refugees stayed for considerably longer periods of time in camps near Bharatpur, Coimbatore and Nainital.



Polish children perform their national dance in Balachadi, Gujarat.


India has been able to uphold with age-old philosophy of welcoming distressed refugees from various parts of the world, notwithstanding its own teeming population. May be European nations, which are better equipped, learn a lesson on being a generous host from India.



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Accidental Talmudist

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Ho Feng-Shan was a mild-mannered diplomat who saved thousands of Austrian Jews between 1938 and 1940.

Born in Hunan province in 1901, Ho’s father died when he was seven. He attended college in Munich, Germany, receiving a doctorate in political economics in 1932.

Ho became a career diplomat serving the Republic of China. Ho’s first posting was in Turkey. Next, he was sent to Vienna in 1937. When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Ho was appointed Consul-General to Vienna.

The violent Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 terrified Vienna’s 200,000 Jews  and made them desperate to get out. Thousands flocked to Embassy Row, going from one consulate to the next, begging for a visa.

Every country turned them away - until they reached Ho’s door. China’s official position was to turn away all Jews, but Ho started writing visas to Shanghai to every Jew who asked him for one. He continued issuing the Shanghai visas against direct orders.

In Ho's first three months in office, he issued 1200 visas allowing Jews to leave Austria. Many went to Shanghai and from there to Australia. Others never went to Shanghai at all, but simply needed a visa in order to leave Austria.

A thriving community of Jewish refugees developed in Shanghai, because of Ho’s visas.

Ho continued issuing visas until he was called back to China in 1940. It is estimated that Ho issued more than 10,000 visas to Jewish refugees.

After the Chinese Revolution, Ho sided with the Nationalist government and moved to Taiwan. He continued to serve as an ambassador and was posted to Egypt, Mexico, Bolivia, and Colombia.

Ho retired in 1973 and moved to San Francisco. He died in 1997, at age 96.

Ho never spoke of his wartime heroism. His family knew nothing about what their father had done to save Jews until survivors started to speak out. Their stories reached Yad Vashem, and in 2000, Feng-Shan Ho was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

For sticking his neck out to save thousands of lives, we honor Ho Feng Shan as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.

With thanks to Khy Brochez

Leonor Medeiros
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Bishop Chrysostomos, 1943

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Bishop Chrysostomos, the spiritual leader of the Greek island of Zakynthos, stuck his neck out to save all 275 of the island’s Jews during the Nazi occupation of Greece.

On September 9, 1943, Germany occupied the Italian territories, including Greece. Immediately, the German commander ordered all Greek Jews to be assembled for deportation to Poland. The mayor of Zakynthos, Lucas Carrer, was ordered to prepare a list of Jews on the island.

Mayor Carrer made the list but before handing it over to the Nazis he went to the local church leader, Bishop Chrysostomos, for counsel. 

The bishop told the mayor to burn the list. He then went to the German commander and begged him not to deport the Jews. They were law-abiding citizens with the same rights as all other Greeks. The officer was unmoved and insisted on receiving the list of all Jews on the island.

Bishop Chrysostomos took out a slip of paper, wrote his own name on it, and handed it to the German officer. “Here is the list of Jews you required,” he said.

This action confused the Nazi, and gained the bishop and mayor the time they needed.

Together, they warned all the Jews of Zakynthos that their lives were in danger. They urged their Jewish brethren to hide in the mountains, and promised that Greek islanders would provide them with food and shelter.

The people of Zakynthos, led by their brave bishop and mayor, kept their hidden Jews alive until the island was liberated by the Soviet army in late 1944. 

In 1978 Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Carrer were honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. 

For their great leadership and courage in saving the lives of 275 Jews, we honor Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Carrer of Zakynthos, Greece as this week’s Thursday Heroes atAccidental Talmudist.

With thanks to Jason VanBorssum

Leonor Medeiros
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