400 Years After Portugal’s Inquisition, a Very Unusual Family Comes Together

The Da Costas' Amazing Sephardic Story

On Tour: The da Costas visited the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, the far left building in this 18th century print.
Wikimedia Commons
On Tour: The da Costas visited the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, the far left building in this 18th century print.

By Jessica Siegel

Published June 01, 2014, issue of June 06, 2014.
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The scene was that of a typical family gathering at an Amsterdam restaurant in April. Children squatted on their chairs to reach the table, cuddling up to their grandmother, dishes were passed and toasts were made; a pair of sisters talked about old times.

Yet this was no typical family. The da Costas are descendants of four Portuguese Jewish brothers who, with their mother, fled the Inquisition in Portugal in 1614 and made their way to Amsterdam in order to live openly as Jews. The dinner culminated a full day of activities to commemorate that event.

The reunion brought together 55 family members, ranging in age from 4 to 70. And yet, ironically, very few of the da Costas who gathered there — coming from all over the Netherlands and Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America — were Jewish themselves.

Many of their ancestors converted to Christianity over the years, or simply stopped practicing Judaism. As one participant, Joost da Costa, a retired pediatrician, said the familly’s relationship to Judaism “has to do with the guarding of our history… It is a kind of feeling of where you come from, where you belong.”

The commemoration was the brainchild of Marina da Costa, an animated Surinamese Jewish woman who has become a passionate researcher of her family’s history. She leads tours of Jodensavanne, the 17th-century Jewish plantation settlement now in ruins, 35 miles down the Suriname River from Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital city.

Marina da Costa worked for over a year with another distant relative to organize the event, reaching out to family members neither had met. She described the experience as transformative. At the reunion, she said, “you saw people who you know exist but you have never seen them.”

The da Costas trace their roots to four brothers: Abraham, Uriel, Joseph and Mordecai, who, with their mother, left Portugal after living as New Christians — Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese King, Manuel I, in 1497, five years after the start of the Spanish Inquisition. Many Portuguese Jews publicly practiced Catholicism but continued to live as conversos, or secret Jews, and fled, like the da Costas, when they could. Others eventually became true Catholics.


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