FUNCHAL, Madeira (Região Autónoma da Madeira, Portugal) — “I have some bad news,” were virtually the first words I heard from Dr. Carlos Pestana Pereira, a general surgeon and historian enthusiast.
I thought for sure my one and only contact on this emerald isle was going to tell me the Jewish cemetery was closed.
“The cemetery” …here it comes, I was thinking… “is under renovation. Much of it is covered. I didn’t know this until just the other day,” he said with some regret.
I sighed. It was the main thing — nearly the only thing — that I’d come all this way to photograph.
“Can we get in?”
“Yes, I think so,” he replied, “But I think you may have some trouble.”
I insisted we go anyway. What had I got to lose?
The Jewish cemetery in Funchal is the only Jewish cemetery in Madeira, a Portuguese autonomous region located in the east Atlantic Ocean some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the Canary Islands and a bit further than that west of Morocco (the island’s proximity to mainland Africa was all the reason I needed to include it in my Jewish Africa project). The cemetery clings to a cliffside 100 meters (330 feet) above the wrath of the sea below. Even before Carlos’ worrying news, I really had no idea how safe it would be to enter. Some graves, I had read, had fallen into the sea due to erosion. Only one grave, however, is confirmed to have been lost.
So, as it turned out, the restoration was both good and bad news: the former because I was pleased to learn it is being taken care of, but the latter because, clearly, it interfered with my work though the three workmen there went out of their way to accommodate me. Before leaving me at the cemetery for a while, Carlos explained what I was there for. They didn’t mind a bit. In fact, one of the men assisted by uncovering some of the protected headstones and even washing them off with a blast of water from a hose.
With a crane towering overhead, half the tombs covered by scaffolding, others hidden under a protective cover, and one worker literally hanging by a steel thread in a basket over the edge, I spent over an hour figuring out how to photograph the 30 or so graves. Eighteen-fifty-one is stamped into the stone doorframe of the cemetery, but none of the graves I could access and read were older than 1869. It was hot, sticky, noisy, and a little unnerving being on the edge of terra firma with all this dangerous equipment overhead. This was definitely a hard hat zone. I didn’t have one.
“You will be the only one with photographs of the cemetery under renovation,” Carlos noted. Perhaps that is so, but it was little consolation.
MADEIRA WAS SETTLED BY A JEW, Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco (c. 1390 – 21 November 1471). But Zarco was a Converso, a convert to Christianity. In the afternoon, Carlos gave me a mini-tour of central Funchal, the island’s charming capital city. It graces verdant hills that spill from mountain peaks down to the sea. The tour included observing a statue of Zarco high on a perch in the center of town, and a visit to the Santa Clara Convent where he and several of his relatives are buried. Unfortunately, Zarco’s grave is actually covered by a hardwood floor that was apparently installed to protect the graves beneath it. Consequently, one cannot actually view his grave, though a small segment of the floor opens to reveal his father’s grave.
Up above, the ceiling of the main chapel is decorated with attractive murals, several of which depict scenes from the Bible, including Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant, the Jordan River, and a Menorah.
TODAY, THERE IS NO JEWISH COMMUNITY whatsoever to speak of in Madeira, though no doubt there are Jewish residents on the island. No wonder the former Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue on Rua do Carmo Street in central Funchal was long ago shuttered. Today, the ground level is divided into a cafe frequented by locals, and an architectural design shop.
“I think they are away until the end of the month,” the barista told me about the shop owners next door. “They have the keys.”
Bad timing again, I thought.
I wondered what, if anything, is upstairs. “It’s an empty space,” I was told. But I gave up trying to gain access thinking that it is quite possible the upper floors still look very much like the synagogue it once was when it was built in 1836. It first served Moroccan Jews who arrived in 1819, then refugees who fled the First and Second World Wars.
I left Madeira after only two days surprised that Jews have not been lured back by its beauty in numbers large enough to warrant cleaning out those upper floors of the synagogue. Perhaps one day soon, a Jewish community will resettle on this alluring island.
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