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Highlights: Jewish history in Portugal and Talk on Portuguese Diplomat Who Helped Rescue Jews Fleeing Holocaust
(Washington, D.C., June 25, 2019)–The International Council of B’nai B’rith (ICBB) met in Lisbon, Portugal, from June 23rd to June 25th. In addition to council meetings, the itinerary included numerous fascinating insights into Portuguese and Jewish history.
After the opening plenary featuring Gabriel Steinhardt, the president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, participants learned about the heroic legacy of Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Sousa Mendes issued visas to refugees, including thousands of Jews, fleeing Nazi terror during World War II. His actions were taken at great personal risk and in defiance of the wartime Portuguese government. Mariana Abrantes de Sousa, treasurer of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, and Monica Barzilay, a descendant of a Sousa Mendes visa recipient and representative to the B’nai B’rith International Board of Governors, spoke.
Attendees viewed a clip from the documentary “Turned Away” about the voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees from WWII-era Germany that attempted to reach Cuba but was turned away. The ship then attempted to unload passengers in the United States and Canada but permission from both countries was denied. Although some of the refugees were ultimately able to find refuge in European countries, it is estimated that more than a quarter of the refugees ultimately perished in Nazi death camps.
Day two of the program included a special session on “Sephardi Jews Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean” held at the University of Lisbon and a plenary session featuring Catarina Vaz Pinto, culture councillor on the Lisbon City Council. Raphael Gamzou, ambassador of Israel to Portugal, spoke at a luncheon, part of the ongoing and long-standing B’nai B’rith Diplomatic Encounter Series. The day concluded with a screening of “Sefarad,” a 2019 film inspired by real events in the city of Oporto during the mid-20th century, and a tour of Shaaré Tikva Synagogue in Lisbon. “Sefarad” focuses on Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto, a captain in the Portuguese army who converted to Judaism after uncovering his own Jewish ancestry. Barros Basto helped found a synagogue in Oporto and worked to create a thriving Jewish community there but was ultimately expelled from the army for conduct unbecoming a military officer.
The final day of the ICBB conference featured an all-day Jewish heritage tour of the region of Alentejo, in south central and southern Portugal. The tour covered Castelo de Vide, a town next to the Spanish border that served as a destination for Jewish refugees from the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and Marvao, a walled town with a rich Jewish history. 
The gathering was held under the auspices of the ICBB, but all levels of leadership, from the Executive Board of Directors to the Board of Governors, participated and held meetings.    
B’nai B’rith International has advocated for global Jewry and championed the cause of human rights since 1843. B’nai B’rith is recognized as a vital voice in promoting Jewish unity and continuity, a staunch defender of the State of Israel, a tireless advocate on behalf of senior citizens and a leader in disaster relief. With a presence around the world, we are the Global Voice of the Jewish Community. Visit