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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For Marina da Costa, the reunion was one component of her own return to Judaism. She is the daughter of a Dutch Jewish father and a Christian mother. Her father fought in the resistance movement during World War II and lost his sister, brother-in-law, and their two children in Auschwitz.

The experience caused him to lose his faith, as he questioned the existence of a God who would allow the mass killing of Jews. Neither Marina nor her siblings were raised Jewish. When at 18 she told her father that she wanted to return to his religion, he balked.

“Oh, my girl, what are you doing now? I was the one who made you not Jewish and now you’re going back,” Marina da Costa recounted. “I think you will be the first one they will catch.”

Marina da Costa’s mother, on the other hand, was more interested in the family’s Jewish heritage. Though not Jewish herself, Irini da Costa was fascinated by Sephardic Jewish history in Suriname and spent time in the Dutch archives, photocopying letters, birth records, marriage licenses, death certificates, bills of sale, ships manifests and other public records. She even combed the phone book for da Costas, which led to meeting with the distant relative, Lousje da Costa, with whom Marina organized the reunion. In 1973, Irini da Costa founded the Jodensavanne Foundation to help restore the remains of the synagogue of the initial Jewish settlement, long ago swallowed up by jungle.

Marina da Costa eventually did convert. She first pursued conversion in an Orthodox synagogue with her then-husband, a non-Jew, and their four children. But her young daughter’s battle with childhood leukemia arrested the process. After her daughter’s death and her divorce, she and her children completed their conversion through a liberal synagogue.

After living in the Netherlands for 30 years, Marina da Costa is back in Suriname starting a tour company focusing on Jewish sites there. She is also working on a 375th anniversary celebration of the Surinamese Jewish community scheduled for October 2014.

The event will unveil a monument to the 108 Surinamese Jews who died in Europe during World War II, and will also bring together people from the various ethnic groups in Suriname — Maroons (descendants of slaves), Creoles, Chinese, Indonesians, Indians, and of course, Jews — for concerts.

Marina da Costa’s interest in Judaism was born out of her family’s history, she said, but it’s also something more.

“When I read about Uriel da Costa or when I think of Baruch da Costa, the cantor at Jodensavanne, and some of the da Costa women, it’s all part of my family,” she said. “It’s not the rules that make you Jewish, it’s neshama, your soul. It’s being connected to the universe.”

Jessica Siegel is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of issues from arts to education. She is working on a book about the history of the Jews in Suriname and the Caribbean.


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