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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

The da Costa reunion began at the Jewish Historical Museum, where Joost da Costa spoke about two key figures in the da Costa family tree: Uriel da Costa and Isaac da Costa. Uriel, one of the four original brothers, convinced his siblings to return to Judaism, which galvanized the family to leave Portugal.

Once in Amsterdam, however, he began to question rabbinic authority and later the immortality of the soul, publishing his views in a book. He was excommunicated from the Sephardic synagogue and fled to Hamburg, Germany. He later returned, but was excommunicated again for questioning other Jewish teachings, such as the idea that Moses was given the 10 commandments directly from God.

He eventually recanted, but as punishment for his heretical views, he was forced to lie on the path leading into the synagogue as congregants walked over him. He later took his own life. Over the centuries, Uriel came to be seen as an early free thinker, and by the 19th century had become a central character in several Yiddish theater plays and an operetta. (Two weeks before the reunion, in New York City, Uriel was the subject of a wild, avant-garde production of a new play, “Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man!” with three actors — one a woman — portraying the central character. It also included puppets, projections, artificial smoke and music.)

Joost da Costa also spoke about Isaac da Costa, his great-great-grandfather, a romantic poet and writer, who eventually converted to the Protestant Dutch Reform Church. There were many 19th-century Jews who converted, such as the father of German composer Felix Mendelssohn.

“He followed the stream,” said Joost da Costa of his ancestor. “It was the flow of the time.”

Yet Joost da Costa and his family maintain an interest in their Jewish past. In the 1960s, his father, a minister, took the family to Portugal on two different occasions to visit the street where the da Costa house once stood. Joost da Costa himself has been researching the family genealogy since his retirement from medicine five years ago. He has also investigated the life of Joseph da Costa, one of the other original brothers, who lived for several years in New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan, battling the anti-Semitic Governor Peter Stuyvesant.

Da Costa, a merchant who was a shareholder in the Dutch West India Company, was involved in a number of petitions to the company to grant Jews rights, such as the ability to trade and purchase property. Joseph da Costa eventually returned to Amsterdam and is buried in a Jewish cemetery there.

At the Amsterdam reunion, the extended da Costa family toured the Portuguese Synagogue, also known as the Esnoga, the magnificent house of worship lit by over 1,000 candles in brass chandeliers. The synagogue, which opened in 1675, has a rosewood ark that rises over 26 feet high against one wall.

The floor is covered with sand; some say that this is a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, while others say it is a throwback to the converso era, when secret Jewish worshippers wanted to muffle the sound of their feet. Since it was the day before Passover, the synagogue had been swept clean of sand.

The group then walked to the Kirchner Bookstore, owned by another da Costa descendant, Frederick Lobbrecht, for drinks and canapés. Overlooking a canal, the bookstore was a treasure trove of books on politics, philosophy, anthropology and religion that could only be found in a European capital like Amsterdam. A large poster for Baruch Spinoza’s “Ethics” featuring the philosopher’s portrait looked down from a wall. The store is around the corner from the Anne Frank House, where every day, rain or shine, a long line of people wait to get in.

For dinner, the group converged upstairs in at Haesje Claes, an old-style Dutch restaurant where the extended family got to know each other and ended the day. Mixed among the toasts were exclamations of “L’chaim” and “Mazel tov.”

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.