During the 16th century, the cities of Recife and Olinda received many Jewish immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula, fleeing the persecutions and stakes of the Inquisition. The exact size of the Jewish population in Pernambuco after the discovery of Brazil is unknown, however, researchers estimate that about 300 Jews lived in Recife during Dutch rule. It is common knowledge that the Portuguese Duarte Coelho Pereira (donatário (lord proprietor) of the Captaincy of Pernambuco), Gaspar da Gama (interpreter of the armada of Pedro Álvares Cabral), Bento Teixeira (poet), Fernando de Noronha, João Ramalho, among others, were New Christians – Jews converted to Catholicism to escape the Inquisition – and that the Captaincy of Pernambuco had many Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.
The Dutch invasion (1630-1654) and the seven years under the rule of Count Maurice of Nassau (1637-1644), called Maurits de Braziliaan (Maurice the Brazilian), left the memory of a golden age, recognized in Brazil to this day. During his rule, Jews experienced an unprecedented religious freedom, and could follow their customs and traditions; the papists, Calvinists, and Jews lived together and produced in full harmony; and a truce was established in the Luso-Brazilian guerrilla, creating an unprecedented civilization in the tropics. Nassau also wanted to maintain a peaceful coexistence with the locals, especially the landowners.
Benefited by all these aspects, Cidade Maurícia (Mauritsstad or Mauritiopolis in Dutch, current Recife) acquired a dimension and splendor never imagined in the Americas. All this undoubtedly represented the greatest contrast with the intolerance and cruelty of the Calvinists and the Inquisition. The Tribunal of the Holy Office, which tortured, persecuted, appropriated property, and burned alive all Jews who did not convert to Catholicism, as well as New Christians, suspected of following the Jewish religion on the charge of treason, heresy, witchcraft and impurity of blood; and the Calvinists, among others, who set fire to the beautiful and prosperous village of Olinda in 1631, claiming an excess of Catholic churches there (Vainsencher, 2007).
At that time, the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue was built at Rua do Bom Jesus (Street of Good Jesus), former Rua dos Judeus (Street of the Jews), in the Recife neighborhood, the first Israeli temple of Pernambuco. The first Jewish Cemetery dates from that same time, which the historian José Antônio Gonsalves de Mello marked on many ancient maps at Sítio dos Coelhos, in the Boa Vista neighborhood. Based on this information and overlaying old maps with the recent ones, the architect Mota Menezes pointed out the area where the cemetery was with relative precision. After years of studies and many visits to the unused sites, the researchers Mota Menezes and José Alexandre Ribemboim concluded the following: the first Jewish Cemetery is in the back of two religious institutions at Rua da Glória – the Recolhimento de Nossa Senhora da Glória (Our Lady of Glory Retreat) and the Dispensário de Santo Antônio (Saint Anthony Dispensary) – as well as in the back of a private company – the Armazém de Madeira de Amadeu Barbosa. Three rectangles were delimited at the confluence of those areas, where archeological research should be carried out (Ribemboim; Mota Menezes, 2005).
During World War II (1938-1945), Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews in a war of extermination called the Holocaust. Due to strong anti-Semitism, thousands of Hebrews from Eastern Europe – Poland, Romania, Austria, Germany, and Russia – sought refuge far from concentration camps and gas chambers.
After three centuries without significant immigration, Pernambuco once again became an important pole of attraction for the Jewish population. Upon their arrival, the immigrants built schools, synagogues, and clubs to maintain their customs and traditions. They also acquired a cemetery to bury the dead, according to the precepts of the Mosaic religion. This second Israeli Cemetery (in Pernambuco) is located near Igreja do Barro (Church of Barro), and next to Cemitério Paroquial do Barro (Parish Cemetery of Barro), in the Recife Metropolitan Area. The cemetery was founded on April 5, 1927, but it was only inaugurated on June 2, 1927. Before this date, the Jews were buried in the Santo Amaro Cemetery.
However, when the Israeli Cemetery began to operate, the remains of those Hebrews were transferred there. This was an exception, since the removal of bones, very common in non-Jewish graves, is prohibited by the Jewish religion. Only in exceptional cases are the tombs opened and bones removed.
The Israeli Cemetery has two traditional Jewish symbols: the Star of David and the seven-branched candelabrum. A little away from the entrance, there is a small masonry construction, painted white inside and out, and with two sides open. The wall has a marble plate containing the Star of David and some Hebrew sayings. This small chapel functioned as a wake for almost half a century, but due to the growth of the Jewish community, another wake, much larger and more comfortable, was needed.
The second wake was built in 1971 due to the valuable collaboration of some people from the Jewish community, especially Abrahão Rissin (then president of the Departamento Religioso (Religious Department) of the Centro Israelita de Pernambuco (Pernambuco Israeli Center)) and Aron Rosenblatt (treasurer of the Departmento Religioso), who first waged a campaign to collect donations. On the other hand, the architectural design was done by Alex Lomachinsky; the structural calculation by Meyer Mesel; and the actual construction by Germano Schnaider and Gerson Rissin.
At the entrance of the wake, there is a wooden box with kippot — yarmulkes. According to the Jewish religion, men need to cover their heads with a kippah before entering the cemetery. This is one of the oldest traditions and dates to when the Hebrews lived in Babylon. Covering the head shows a more pious attitude — midat chassidut —an attitude of respect to G-d, for people to remember that G-d is above all things and people. On the other hand, women should cover their heads with a kerchief or shawl.
The wake has a masonry countertop, covered with a marble stone, about one meter high. This countertop serves as a support for the coffin and, above it, just before the ceiling, there is a large Star of David in metal. Above the star, on the roof, there is a circle with transparent tiles, which allows a greater entrance of light on the countertop. Two large crescent-shaped benches were also built in masonry. And one of the walls has a board with the names of the people who died (alphabetically), the number of the streets where they are buried, and the numbers of their tombs. Anyone who consults this board easily finds the location of the tombs.
The wake has a space reserved for the funeral ceremony. There, the walls are covered with white tiles, there is an octagonal masonry countertop, to support the coffin, and a washbowl. The ceremony is held by the Chevra Kadisha — the Funeral Commission — which prepares the deceased to be buried. This is done in complete privacy (with the doors closed) as a sign of respect for the dead. If the deceased is male, only men from the Chevra Kadisha can prepare their body for burial; and, if they are a woman, men are prohibited into the room.
Two plates are attached to the wall of the wake. In the first, one can read
BUILT UNDER THE SPONSORSHIP OF THE
CENTRO ISRAELITA DE PERNAMBUCO
FOUNDED ON 4-5-1927
OPENED ON 6-2-1927
WITH THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS COMPOSED OF
ESTANISLAU DIMENSTEIN VICE*
GEORGE RABIN TREASURER
ISAAC COHAN 1ST SECRETARY
BERNARDO KELNER 2ND *
And on the other plate, the following is recorded:
THIS BUILDING HAS BEEN GIVEN
BY MR. LEÃO CHERPAK
TO SERVE AS A MORGUE TO THE
BARRO ISRAELI CEMETERY
FOUNDED ON 4-5-1927
OPENED ON 6-2-1927
BUILT UNDER THE SPONSORSHIP OF THE CENTRO
ISRAELITA DE PERNAMBUCO
In the space designated to burials, European Jews traditionally separate men on one side and women on the other. This division was respected in the Israeli Cemetery (of Barro) until the areas reserved for men were unavailable. Thus, the Jewish community began to bury women and men side by side until the cemetery became overcrowded. An important point needs to be clarified: many years ago, people from the Jewish community purchased the last available spaces, as they insist on being buried in the same cemetery as their families. That is the reason for a half dozen placeholders.
However, before the cemetery became overcrowded, the Federação Israelita de Pernambuco (Pernambuco Israeli Federation) asked the Recife City Hall to designate an area for the inauguration of another cemetery. Thus, the City Hall provided a site relatively close to the Parque das Flores Cemetery, in the Curado neighborhood, in the municipality of Jaboatão dos Guararapes. The wake of the third Hebrew cemetery in Pernambuco was built there: the Israeli Cemetery (of Parque das Flores).
Recife, April 8, 2004.
DIMENSTEIN, Walter. Depoimento oral, dado à autora deste trabalho, sobre a atuação de Abrahão Rissin, como também de Aron Rosenblatt, junto à construção do segundo velório do Cemitério Israelita (do Barro).
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___________ ; MENEZES, José Luís Mota. O primeiro cemitério judeu das Américas: período da dominação holandesa em Pernambuco (1630 - 1654). Recife: Edições Bagaço, 2005.
SINAGOGA Rochedo de Israel: memória e resgate. Brasília, D.F.: Ministério da Cultura, 2001.
VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Boi voador. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco/Centro de Estudos Folclóricos Mário Souto Maior, n. 332, set. 2007. (Série Folclore).
how to quote this text
VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Cemitério dos Judeus (Recife, PE). In: Pesquisa Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2004. Available at: https://pesquisaescolar.fundaj.gov.br/en/artigo/cemetery-jews-recife-pe/. Access on: month day year. (Ex.: Aug. 6, 2020.)