Basque Country is a unique and fascinating region. It preserves its own language – not like any other, though it straddles both sides of the French-Spanish border. Located just west of the Pyrenees, and with an Atlantic coast lined with stunning crescent beaches, it is an area that is lush, jagged, and tranquil all the the same time. I came to see Basque Country as it once fostered a porous border which made it the perfect escape route for Conversos trying to flee from the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. What better way is there to visit France’s old Portuguese communities than to first retrace the route that their ancestors took to get there?
I began my journey with a flight into Bilbao, Spain (the things you can do when you already live in Europe!), though straightaway took a bus to beautiful San Sebastián. Without a doubt I knew that I was in Spain, with the town’s Marisco cafe, Cervantes Square, and tapas topped with all kinds of things that I can’t eat. Still, it was a gorgeous setting, and it served as a reminder to me of all of the beauty that the Conversos/Crypto Jews were sadly forced to leave behind.
From there I took a local train to the border town of Irun. What better way to experience the Converso escape route than to cross the border by foot? Europe’s open borders meant that I could simply cross the footbridge over the Bidasoa River into Hendaye, France almost without even realising that I had left Spain. In fact, David Graizbord writes in ‘Souls in Dispute,’ that some Conversos in this region continued at great risk to travel back and forth across the border in search of livelihood. I, however, celebrated my crossing into freedom with my first ever Facebook live video!
From there it was onto the former fishing hub of Saint Jean de Luz. This was an important early settlement of France’s Portuguese Jews, though at the time they still had to live outwardly as Catholics as France was a Catholic country. However, as there was no Inquisition there they could at least live privately as they saw fit. As a result though, there are no ‘Jewish’ sites to visit. Still, I must say that this small town was my favourite seaside resort of all of those that I saw. The beach and the bay are absolutely beautiful and they are lined with old wooden homes. The town itself is incredibly atmospheric. It also includes the home where King Louis XIV lived when he married Maria Theresa of Spain, daughter of Philip IV in 1660. Their marriage sealed the Treaty of the Pyrenees which brought peace between their nations.
The Portuguese Conversos eventually made their way further north to Bayonne and even beyond Basque Country (though still within the French region of Aquitaine) to Bordeaux, where my trip concluded. I will write more about those communities in forthcoming posts. It is important to note though, that Conversos also settled in smaller villages around Bayonne (such as in Peyrehorade, Bidacme and La Bastide) and many of their cemeteries remain (though I didn’t have time to visit them). This is significant as we tend to think of the Portuguese Jews as merchants with their major port dwelling communities. However, we must remember that many of them were coming from the interior regions of Portugal, such as Guarda, Trancoso and Belmonte. I therefore imagine that for many of them life in crowded cities like London and Amsterdam must have been quite difficult. Perhaps then, those who chose to settle in the villages of southern France may have at least found a degree continuity and comfort in those more familiar rural settings.
This journey was a transformative experience for me. I always find that through visiting a place of historic relevance that I come to better understand the events that transpired there. In this instance though, I also came to appreciate the disorienting effects that come from a reluctant move. A person in such a circumstance is forced to leave a place that is their home and that they may deeply love. Furthermore, they must also try to find a new place to live, likely in a place with a new language and culture, and where the local population may not even want them there. Such a relocation must be a terrible and traumatising ordeal. My heart goes out to all people forced to flee from persecution.
In particular, as I now reflect upon my trip, I more keenly feel for today’s Jews of France who love living in France but may feel that they now have no choice but to find a new home. As Jews in England, Israel, or America, we must do all that we can to make them feel welcome. We must offer them comfort as they likely mourn internally for their former homes and for their prior sense of belonging. In that light I can also now better understand those that choose to remain in France and to fight for their rights and for their country’s future. Either way it is an awful decision to have to make, and it is a dilemma that I now more deeply feel having walked in the footsteps of the Conversos.
Many thanks to my friend and colleague, Natan Perez, Hazzan of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Esnoga, for helping me to plan this adventure.