April 23, 2014   23 Nisan 5774
Temple Beth Shalom, Puerto Rico
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From Rabbi Norman Patz

March 23, 2008


Dear Friends,


Naomi and I want to share with you an incredibly moving and exciting experience we had last month. Although I am the Rabbi Emeritus of my New Jersey congregation, Temple Sholom of West Essex (TSWE), at my successor’s request we have continued to lead the congregation’s Confirmation class trip to Prague and Amsterdam. As part of that journey, we went to Dvůr Králové, the town from which TSWE’s Holocaust Torah scroll comes, to help dedicate a monument to the destroyed synagogue and lost Jewish community of that town.


Our trip there, on a bitterly cold day in February, was the completion of mission: to memorialize the Jewish citizens of Dvůr Králové who were deported and murdered during the Holocaust. That mission started in 1975 when TSWE received in trust a Torah scroll from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. (As you know, TBSPR also has a Holocaust Torah scroll. More on that below!) The small scroll, we were told, came from a town in northeastern Bohemia where Jews had been leaders in textile manufacturing, and 111 of them had been murdered by the Nazis. In 1975, that was all the information we were able to learn about the Jewish community of Dvůr Králové nad Labem.


But we did know how this Torah scroll from Dvůr Králové – and the scroll in the ark at TBSPR – got to the Westminster Synagogue in London. When the Nazis took over the remaining territory of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, just six months after the infamous Munich conference, they confiscated all Jewish properties, including synagogues. Then the Nazis started gathering the ritual objects of these synagogues and had them sent to Prague to form the basis of a museum dedicated to the “exterminated ethnographic species.” To this day, we cannot explain how or why the decision to gather these Jewish ritual items – Torah scrolls, silver Torah ornaments, embroidered curtains for the Holy Ark, etc. – was made: In all of the other countries that the Nazis invaded and conquered, they plundered the synagogues and used the buildings for stables or storehouses or as assembly points for Jews about to be murdered en masse or deported to one of the death camps in Poland. Yet, in Prague a collection of nearly 200,000 ritual objects was assembled and catalogued under Nazi supervision.


With the end of World War II, few Czech Jewish communities could be reconstituted, so it was the Jewish Museum in Prague which attempted to cope with the treasures that had come into its possession. After the Communist coup, the Jewish Museum, like all other Czech museums, was nationalized. In 1962, the Communist leadership, looking for Western cash, sold the 1,564 Torah scrolls in the museum’s collection to an English art collector who helped created the Memorial Scrolls Trust. The Trust conserved the scrolls and then started lending them to synagogues which could use them and thereby memorialize the Jews who had been murdered.


When TSWE applied to the Memorial Scrolls Trust for one of the scrolls, we had two requests: that the scroll be small in size, so that children could carry it in processions without difficulty, and that it be a kosher scroll – fit for ritual use, for reading the word of God in public worship services. The scroll that best suited our needs came from the destroyed “Tempel,” the synagogue of Dvůr Králové.


Beginning then, every young person who becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah (the “coming of age ceremony” in Jewish life) in the congregation reads from the Dvůr Králové scroll. And, at each of these ceremonies, until my retirement in 2006, I would tell the story of the scroll’s journey. The story included a description of how the synagogue had been demolished in 1966 to make way for a new highway, and how the cemetery had been desecrated and left in ruins.


In my talk, I described the Jewish community that had thrived in Dvůr Králové, and how the Nazis deported and murdered them during the Holocaust years. I would speak about how we were honoring the memory of these innocent, nameless martyrs – the men, the women and the children – by reading God’s words from their scroll.


Because until the Velvet Revolution, we did not know their names. The Communist government refused to help us find that information. So even though we were remembering them as a group, we did not know them as individuals, we did not know them by name. These victims died twice! The oldest among them died in Terezin; the others were murdered by the Nazis in the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka, and in Maly Trostinec, Dachau and Flossenburg.


And they died again when the Communists suppressed their memory.


When democracy returned to the Czech Republic, a new spirit of openness and cooperation began. Now, we know their names. When we read the names of our family members who have died, we also include in our memorial prayers the names of the Jews of Dvur Králové who were killed in the Holocaust. They are together in our hearts.


And we wrote a monograph about them – Thus We Remember – that tells the history of the Jews of the Czech Lands, and about how Jews came and settled in Dvůr Králové and became active in the textile industry that was so important to that city. They created a Jewish community, and self-help organizations and a cemetery, and in 1892 built a beautiful synagogue. Its dome and the spires of the churches together dominated the skyline of the town.


All of the Confirmation class students who went to Dvůr Králové for the dedication ceremony and many of their parents had read from the Dvůr Králové scroll and all of them knew the story well. They knew the names of the deportees and they had seen the drawings done secretly at Terezin by three Jewish children from Dvůr Králové – Petr Hellman, age 9, Marianna Schonova, age 10, and Ota Hammerschlag, age 11. We all went came to the dedication with a sense of personal involvement in this history. Our older daughter, Debby, who came with us to get the Torah scroll at the Westminster Synagogue when she was nine years old, joined us in Dvůr Králové with her own two daughters, Natasha and India, ages ten and six.


The idea of building a monument on the site of the synagogue first came up when Naomi and I visited Dvůr Králové in 2005.We met with the mayor who showed us the location of the synagogue on old town plans and then took us to see where the synagogue had stood. Theree was no memorial to the Jews of the town and no marker of any kind to indicate where synagogue had once stood. We spoke then about erecting a small monument. That conversation started a process that led to a partnership between the municipality of Dvůr Králové and the congregation of Temple Sholom of West Essex, the commissioning of a young sculptor, Ota Cerny, to create the monument that his late father had designed, and the actual placing of the Star of David monument where the entrance doors of the synagogue once stood.


It was Ota who told us about Eva Weiss Noskova, who survived the war in England and returned to Dvůr Králové only months after liberation. In 1965-66, her father tried desperately to have the synagogue saved from destruction, but his effort failed. Mrs. Noskova had read our monograph and offered to help the municipality arrange the dedication ceremony.


Even though we knew every aspect of the event in advance, we were unprepared for how moving and emotional the ceremony was! The scouts in their uniforms – adults and youngsters – were lined up as an honor guard for the flags of the Czech Republic, the U.S. and Israel. We were led in singing the anthems of the Czech Republic, the U.S. and Israel by a group of local school children who had been taught to sing Hatikvah, the anthem of the Jewish people and of Israel. The three ministers of Christian faith each spoke, praising the placing of the monument and warning of the dangers of extremism and totalitarianism. Mrs. Noskova’s personal reminiscences gave the ceremony a unique dimension, and letters from the Czech Ambassador to the U.S., the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic and the Executive Vice President of the Jewish Federation of the Czech Republic gave an official aspect to the day.


With the perspective of five weeks since the event, we are still thrilled to have participated in the dedication of the monument. We are grateful to the many, many citizens of Dvůr Králové who braved the cold weather to be at the dedication and to those who brought flowers and lit candles on the site on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. We are acutely aware that many of the citizens of the town who attended the ceremony suffered had also suffered at the hands of the Nazis and of the Communists. It is clear that the people of Dvůr Králové joined us in determining to remember the past accurately and to build a future on its basis that will be worthy of the legacy of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk – democracy and justice.


We are deeply moved that, under the leadership of Michael Rubin and Lee Calem, Temple Beth Sholom of Puerto Rico is launching an educational and commemorative project to link the congregation, through its Holocaust memorial scroll, to the lost Jewish community of the city of Jihlava in the Czech Republic. Naomi and I will be helping with this work. I am sure that you will be hearing a great deal more about this effort in the near future from Michael and Lee. If you wish to serve on the committee or otherwise contribute to its work, please get in touch with Lee and/or Michael.


Naomi and I send you warmest regards and best wishes for a sweet Pesah, and we look forward to seeing you in the September!




Two New Books by Estelle Irizarry about José Elías Levis, Writer Like No Other

La voz que rompió el silencio: la novelística singular de J. Elías Levis en Puerto Rico post-1898

(ISBN 978-1-934461-006)

Vida nueva, novela por J. Elías Levis, introduction and notes by E. Irizarry; illustrated with photos of the era. (ISBN 978-1-934461-04-4)

: May be ordered directly from Ediciones Puerto: edicionespuerto@gmail or at local bookstores.

Would you be surprised to learn that in 1899, after the American takeover, the only Puerto Rican author to publish a novel in the midst of the trauma was a man named José Elías Levis? Born and bred on the Island, he also introduced the modern historical novel in Puerto Rico, juggled Jewish identity with the Catholic society around him, and was a forerunner of what later would be called ecumenism. His prophetic voice is unmistakably biblical, and his strong social, religious, and moral concerns are rooted in his religious heritage. Yet, strangely enough, literary critics continually refer to him in terms of Christian comparisons.

Estelle Irizarry’s set of two books on this extraordinary writer reveals as much about Puerto Rico in the years following the American takeover as it does about Levis. The first, which tells the story of Levis’s career as novelist and graphic artist, is titled La voz que rompió el silencio: Las novelas singulares de J. Elías Levis en Puerto Rico post-1898 (The Voice that Broke the Silence: The Singular Novels of J. Elías Levis in Post-1898 Puerto Rico). The second is an edition of his last novel New Life (Vida nueva) with an introduction, helpful footnotes, and some 20 vintage photos of the era (1910). The publisher is Ediciones Puerto, whose director, José Carvajal, is President of the annual International Fair of Puerto Rican Books.

How did Levis come to be all but forgotten? Some of Puerto Rico’s most respected literary historians made mistakes in dates, and as a result a fascinating novelist of the most critical era of Puerto Rican history–1898–was forgotten by subsequent generations. He was the first novelist who broke the silence of national trauma, and his solitary literary voice is unlike any other before him or after, due to factors of upbringing and origin that made his work “different”. He left enigmas about his connections with the Masons and his attitudes toward the events of 1898, but he had lots to say about the direction of the country, birth control, intermarriage, divorce, and women’s issues. Without José Elías Levis, the literary history of Puerto Rico is incomplete.

Dos libros nuevos por Estelle Irizarry sobre José Elías Levis, escritor como ningún otro

La voz que rompió el silencio: la novelística singular de J. Elías Levis en Puerto Rico post-1898

(ISBN 978-1-934461-006)

Vida nueva, novela por J. Elías Levis; edición de E. Irizarry. (ISBN 978-1-934461-04-4)

Pedidos directos: Ediciones Puerto, edicionespuerto@gmail.com,o a librerías.

Historiadores autorizados de la literatura puertorriqueña se equivocaron de fechas, y como resultado quedó en el olvido un extraordinario novelista de la época más crítica de la historia puertorriqueña–1898. Rompiendo con el silencio del trauma nacional, su voz solitaria de novelista no es como ninguna otra antes ni después, debido a factores de crianza y origen que le dan carácter “distinto” y paradójico. Los críticos insisten en hablar de Levis en términos de cualidades “cristianas”, pero era judío y se adelantó en lo que hoy llamamos “ecumenismo”. Profeta del futuro, inicia en Puerto Rico la novela histórica moderna, a la vez que cultiva la pintura. No dejó familia, pero sí dejó enigmas acerca de su relación con los masones, los judíos, los eventos de 1898 y el rumbo del país. Sin José Elías Levis Bernard, la historia de la literatura de Puerto Rico queda incompleta.

El segundo tomo es una edición anotada de la última novela de Levis, Vida nueva, con introducción, notas de calce y unas 20 fascinantes fotos antiguas de la época que podrían ser ilustraciones. Toca temas muy atrevidos para 1910 (feminismo, matrimonio interreligioso, control de natalidad, divorcio) a la vez que introduce la historiografía en la novela de Puerto Rico.

Weekly Torah Commentary  
The Puerto Rican-Jewish Connection  


The Jewish Puerto Rican Connection

The First Novel Published in the New World

by: Estelle Irizarry

Professor Emerita, Georgetown University

North American Academy of the Spanish Language

A little known fact is that one of the authors of the first novel published in the New World, in 1690, was Puerto Rican and the son of a Marrano or Crypto-Jewish father! Given that the son didn’t practice the religion, his Jewish ancestry in itself might seem to be of little consequence, except that it ended up determining the whole course of his life, launching a series of adventures recounted in his autobiographical book Infortunios de Alonso Ramírez (Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez). Undertaken on orders by the Viceroy of Mexico, the publication listed the well-known Jesuit scholar Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora as author, but as we shall see, it was a collaborative effort, and the story itself came from Alonso Ramírez.

Ramírez’s Jewish roots first came obvious to me in the course of my research in preparing a critical edition of Misfortunes, under a grant from Puerto Rico’s Fifth Centennial Commission. My proposal was to resolve the three-centuries old question of the authorship of the novel using computer analysis. In dispute was whether the narrator Alonso Ramírez was a fictional character invented by the Mexican Jesuit intellectual Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, or whether he was a real person who dictated his story, with some exaggerations, to Sigüenza. The Mexican author claims that he simply wrote down what the illiterate Puerto Rican sailor Alonso Ramírez told him, on the orders of the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico). However, inventing sources is a common literary device (like Cervantes who claims he found the manuscript of Don Quijote), so some readers and scholars concluded that the whole thing was fiction.

Computer analysis would make it possible to determine whether Alonso Ramírez’s voice in Sigüenza’s narrative could be detected and clearly differentiated from that of the Mexican writer. The computer calculations are amply described in Spanish in my edition of the work and in English in Literary and Linguistic Computing (see Bibliography below). Summarized briefly, a comparison of Infortunios with three texts known to be written by Sigüenza alone revealed statistically significant uses of words, constructions, phrases, and style that were unique to one author and not the other. The novel contained the largest vocabulary of any of the other writings by Sigüenza, which suggested that there were two vocabularies at work here. Otherwise there is no explanation why a novel about an illiterate sailor would surpass the vocabularies in other, more “serious” books by the learned Jesuit Sigüenza.

Once it was clear that Alonso Ramírez really existed and wasn’t just a character in a book of fiction, a number of inconsistencies and omissions in Misfortunes could no longer be blamed on Sigüenza. They had to be explained in terms of the life of the real Alonso Ramírez.

Five unanswered questions emerge in the very first chapter: (1) why Alonso says he doesn’t know where his father was born, (2) the reason why he doesn’t use his father’s last name, (3) why he left Puerto Rico at such a young age, just turning thirteen, (4) why his mother’s relative in México turned him away swearing at him, and (5) why he decided to go off to the Philippines, a place where Spain banished criminals.

Of these mysteries, only that of the last name had stumped critics, but as we shall see, all five problems can be explained by one circumstance: Ramírez’s father was a Crypto Jew, one who practiced his religion secretly. Each question is discussed briefly below.

(Mystery 1) The birthplace of Alonso’s father.

Alonso Ramírez tells us: “My father’s name was Lucas de Villanueva, and although I don’t know where he was born, suffice it to say that several times I heard he was Andalucian..." On the other hand, he says his mother, named Ana Ramírez, was born in Puerto Rico, and that he owed to her Christianity good advice and inclination to virtue.

We do know that Alonso’s father’s job as ship’s carpenter was common among Marranos, as recorded by the Inquisition in Spain and América (Liebman 40, Roth 273). The strange forgetfulness or indifference of Alonso Ramírez to his father’s place of birth suggests that Lucas de Villanueva (like Cervantes in presenting Don Quijote, and like many Jewish immigrants to America in more recent times) did not care to remember. But if Lucas de Villanueva was from Andalucía, it is significant that in the reign of Felipe IV, public autos de fe by the Inquisition increased in Seville, Granada, y Córdoba, all of them cities of Andalucía (Caro Baroja, Los judíos 83). The 1650s were especially filled with antisemitism in Spain culminating in terrible autos in which thousands of judaizantes or New Christian converts judged insincere perished.

Although there were laws prohibiting the emigration of New Christians, they were in fact allowed to leave so long as they took nothing with them. It is not clear why Lucas de Villanueva would have come to Puerto Rico, an island of great poverty in those years, when México was relatively well off. He most likely arrived before 1649, since Puerto Rico’s Spanish governor Juan Pérez de Guzmán wrote to the king in 1660 that it had been eleven years since a Spanish registered ship had come to the island (Coll y Toste). Official naval routes avoided San Juan harbor because of irregular depths, and even the Royal Armada docked in Aguada. In the second half of the century only 28 ships from Spain reached Puerto Rico (López Cantos 122). If Lucas de Villanueva came later than 1649, it had to be in one of the Spanish ships forced to dock for repairs in San Juan between 1651 and 1659: The Sra. del Rosario y las Animas (Cádiz, 1651), San Juan Bautista (Cádiz, 1652), María Santísima de la Victoria (Cádiz, 1657), or Nuestra Señora del Rosario y San Francisco Solano (Sevilla, 1659) .(López Cantos 312).*

In Mexico of 1649, thirteen years before Alonso Ramírez was born, five years of intense persecution had culminated in ferocious autos de fe against judaizantes, "descendants of Jews," and "Crypto Jews" –men, women, and children. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, persecution of Marranos was not a priority since there were more pressing needs, due to hurricanes and raids by Dutch pirates. Puerto Rico’s Inquisition focused its attention on the conduct of the Governors, like Diego de Aguiler y Gamboa (1650-56), accused of blasphemy and heresy, and Gaspar de Arteaga y Aunaovidao (1670-74), deemed irreligious and impious (López Cantos 169).

(Mystery 2) "My name is Alonso Ramírez," says the protagonist-narrator, using his mother’s last name.

Scholars have advanced all kinds of unconvincing theories to explain this, but a common last name like Ramírez was desirable in that it attested to “clean bloodlines” of the Old Christians, while the New Christians (through conversion) tended to procure high–sounding titles and surnames. A surname like Ramírez would be impossible to trace, leaving Alonso’s lineage lost in the past, for as Caro Baroja tells us, ignorance was the best proof of being an Old Christian.

Whether or not his parents were legitimately married was not an issue, since among working classes the Church frequently had to prevail on couples to marry, and it was not an impediment to using the father’s name. Alonso’s father obviously was around during his youth, enough for him to impart his knowledge of the work of a ship’s carpenter.

One of the most common reasons for using the maternal surname, according to Deive, was to hide Semitic origin (113). For example, relatives of Santa Teresa de Jesús "took their mother’s name Cepeda to hide the “infamy” of their lineage (Caro Baroja, Los judíos 352). Marranos frequently changed their names or used pseudonyms prior to emigrating to the New World.

Strangely, Alonso Ramírez doesn’t hide his father’s name, perhaps because the Viceroy of Mexico made him attest legally to the facts in his story. With the surname “Villanueva” there are two possibilities: or it is invented in the novel for its symbolism of “new town”, referring to Lucas de Villanueva’s settling in Puerto Rico, or he, like several Villanueva families appearing in Inquisition records, was a Marrano. The name is connected with famous converts, such as a daughter of Fernando and Isabella’s secretary who married Angel de Villanueva, Viceroy of Cerdeña, in 1515 (Deive 43, Caro Baroja, Los judíos 278). Another family of Villanuevas was pursued by the Inquisition for various generations. The name is listed among converts’ surnames in 1504, with the caveat of its being difficult to discern the “good” Villanuevas from the “bad” ones by the surname only.

(Mystery 3) At barely thirteen years of age, Alonso Ramírez left his homeland to “seek convenience” in other lands. This was quite young, since the Laws of the Indies protected Indians under 14 years of age considering them as “children.”

Alonso suggests that in part it was for lack of continuous employment, but the Puerto Rican governors complained to the Spanish Crown about a shortage of carpenters and other workmen (Vila 35), and the situation hadn’t changed in 1670, when a royal decree obliged all jobless youths to become apprentices in ship carpentry because of great need (Cummins y Soons 302). Nobles considered manual labor beneath their station, and the colony was so full of nobles with inflated ideas of themselves that Fray Damián López de Haro complained to the king, who in 1692 sent workers to train youngsters in manual labor.

It is likely that Alonso Ramírez’s true motive for leaving his homeland lies in the Marranos’ practice of communicating the secret of their religion to their sons as they approached the age of 13 years (Caro Baroja, Los judíos), and not before because of the danger that a child might give the dangerous secret away without realizing it (Roth 173-74). Crypto Jews prepared their sons in Jewish rites and beliefs so they could become bar mitzvah. They passed the secret from father to son (Roth 174), as attested by numerous Inquisition records accusing fathers of teaching Hebrew rites to thirteen-year-olds. Caro Baroja reproduces an Inquisitor’s description in the XVIII century of a typical confession in Sevilla, where the father transmits the secret to his son, leaving him confused and stunned. It seems likely that Alonso Ramírez, schooled in the Christian faith by his mother, reacted to the terrible secret of his father by running away.

It is difficult to know how strongly the Inquisition functioned in Puerto Rico because of archivos destroyed in multiple invasions, but there is mention of at least one burning at the stake. By 1533 the Governor suggested ending the Inquisition in Puerto Rico and sending cases to Santo Domingo and México, but by Alonso Ramírez’s time, there was no real danger of the Inquisition. It was mainly shock.

(Mystery 4) Why would his mother’s relative in Mexico, a city councilman in Huasaca, turn Alonso away, cursing at him and denying that they were related? Alonso’s mother had obviously told him where to find D. Luis Ramírez, but it would appear that he suspected something, and Mexico had a very active Inquisition, with ten autos de fe in the period between Alonso’s birth and his arrival in Mexico (Liebman), to say nothing of thousands of complaints against individuals. The mere suspicion that his nephew had a Jewish father would be enough to want to avoid him at all cost.

(Mystery 5) The greatest mystery of the book is why the protagonist imposed on himself an exile in Philippines after the death of his Mexican wife. He says: "Losing all hope of becoming somebody and finding myself in the court of my own conscience not only accused but also convinced of being useless, I decided to give myself the sentence for this crime meted out in Mexico to delinquents, which is to banish them to the Philippines." Alonso leaves Acapulco in 1682. This rhetoric only makes sense in the context of his feeling responsible for the untimely death of his wife as a sort of divine retribution because of the “stain” of his Jewish heritage that he feels he must expiate. One of the Inquisition’s punishments to those who “relapsed” in their faith was serving as rowers on the galley ships, which was always fatal (Liebman 40). It is likely that Alonso Ramírez exiled himself to relieve the weight of what Constance Rose calls the “damnosa hereditas”–the “damning heritage” of his Jewish background. that was viewed by the Church as “original sin”.

Caro Baroja citing the sociologist G. Simmel, says that evil is always given in connection with “the secret”, as a result of hiding what others consider immoral, so the person suffers even when there is no danger of actual punishment” (Inquisición 21).

Alonso Ramírez, son of a Marrano who still adhered to his Jewish faith, reacted to the news of his heritage by embarking on a long trip that would take him around the world. where he would experience hardships and ill treatment at the hands of pirates, eventually returning to Mexico. There he would tell his story of adventures, embellished as only a good storyteller can do, in order to earn some sustenance, until the Viceroy heard of his “misfortunes” and asked Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora to write them down, for his enjoyment and ours..

So, while Alonso Ramírez was not a practicing Jew, his father undoubtedly was, and this had important consequences, precipitating a series of adventures and misfortunes. However, Alonso Ramírez was fortunate in one respect: the Viceroy had him dictate his story to one of Mexico’s most brilliant writers, creating a collaborative work by a master Puerto Rican storyteller and a great Mexican writer, that continues to fascinate readers more than three centuries later.

* Authors and pages of sources are given in parentheses, and complete information about these sources, in the Bibliography.

Manuel and Estelle Irizarry

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