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 a strange twist, “Little Women” has served some Jewish immigrants to America as a tool of assimilation. “No book I have opened has meant as much to me,” a Russian Jewish immigrant, Elizabeth G. Stern, observed in 1917. “That small volume [told], in simple words such as I myself spoke, the story of an American childhood in New England.”

Portugal has attempted in recent years to redress some wrongs done to Jews. During World War II, Portugal’s consul general in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, created an escape route through Lisbon that allowed an estimated 1 million refugees to escape the Nazis — many more than the renowned Oskar Schindler saved. Sousa Mendes accomplished “the greatest single act of rescue by an individual during the war,” according to Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer.

In 1966, Israel honored Sousa Mendes, who had died more than a decade before, as Righteous Among the Nations. He posthumously received Portugal’s Order of Liberty medal, and the Sousa Mendes Foundation is dedicated to his memory. His ancestral mansion, Caso do Passal, in Portugal’s northern town of Cabanas de Viriato, is being renovated as a memorial museum. In 1987, President Mário Soares apologized to the Jewish community for Portugal’s Inquisition and other persecutions.

Today, only a few thousand Jews live in Portugal. But Jewish ancestry is not as uncommon as it might seem. Nearly one in five Portuguese citizens, according to a recent study in The American Journal of Human Genetics, has Jewish ancestry. Apparently, the number of Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Christianity half a millennium ago was far larger than historians previously believed. As for the countless Jews who fled Portugal, their descendants include the economist David Ricardo and the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, as well as Louisa May Alcott.

Eve LaPlante is the author, most recently, of “Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother,” and the editor of “My Heart Is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother” both published by Free Press in 2012.


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