Discovering Louisa May Alcott's Jewish History on Portuguese Tour

'Little Women' Author Was a Little Bit Sephardic

A Little Surprising: “Little Women” has served some Jewish immigrants to America as a tool of assimilation. But, as it turns out, the novel’s author Louisa May Alcott came from Sephardic Jewish ancestry.
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A Little Surprising: “Little Women” has served some Jewish immigrants to America as a tool of assimilation. But, as it turns out, the novel’s author Louisa May Alcott came from Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

By Eve LaPlante

Published May 28, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
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In April 1506, in Lisbon, a mob rounded up hundreds of New Christians and some Old Christians suspected of helping them secretly practice Judaism. The mob burned down dwellings in the Judiaria and massacred more than 2,000 Jews in a public square. King Manuel I executed the leaders of the mob and, in an effort at compensation, granted New Christians religious freedom for 20 years.

Rossio Square, the site of the massacre, just west of the Alfama in central Lisbon, is a huge, handsome open space paved with Portuguese mosaic, dotted with fountains and surrounded by shops and cafes. The inscription on a memorial stone placed here on the 500th anniversary of the massacre, in 2006, reads, in translation, “In memory of the thousands of Jews who were the victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism and murdered in the massacre initiated on April 19, 1506, in this square.”

The Baroque Church of Sao Domingos, at the northeast corner of Rossio Square, was built on the site of the Tribunal of the Inquisition. The tribunal met in Lisbon from the 1540s until the 18th century. Its actions led to public burnings — autos da fé — of heretical Christians and more than 1,000 New Christians suspected of heresy or of secretly maintaining their Jewish faith. Inquisitorial tribunals exist- ed in Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto and Évora.

We took a fast train to Coimbra, a hill town on the Mondego River in central Portugal, to see another region of importance. Coimbra — the name comes from a Celtic word for “high, rocky place” — was the capital of Portugal until the 14th century. Before 1500 it was a major center of Jewish population.

A bus delivered us from the train depot to the town’s central square — actually a triangle surrounding a statue — where our tour began. Our first stop was the 16th-century church of the Monastery of Santa Cruz, a fine example of the Manueline style of architecture, a combination of Gothic and Renaissance features named for the king.

Santa Cruz is decorated with carved symbols of Portugal’s powerful empire during Manuel’s reign. Ropes signify Portuguese ships, which sailed to the ends of the world, while pomegranates, peppers and spices signify the fruits of those explorations. In the 16th century, during the Inquisition, autos da fé took place in the square in front of this church.

A nearby alley called Rua Corpo de Deus (Corpus Christi St.) marks the entrance to the historic Jewish quarter. We climbed through the Judiaria Velha, Coimbra’s first and oldest Jewish quarter, established in the 12th century, and the newer, 14th-century Jewish quarter. A 1725 fountain on Rua Olímpio Nicolau Fernandes is called the Fonte Nova, also known as the Jewish Fountain.

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