Speaking for the Silenced | Tikkun
I asked two writer acquaintances of mine for the names of reputable publishers and called up the only editor who appeared on both lists — Maria da Piedade Ferreira, head of a small publishing house called Quetzal Editores. In my pidgin Portuguese, I described the story to her, and she agreed that I could send her the manuscript. Three months passed without a response, however. When I summoned my courage to call again, she asked for me to come down to Lisbon — three hours by train from Porto — and talk with her.
I cried on the train back to Porto. As the publishing date approached, Maria da Piedade warned me that my novel might not sell more than a few dozen copies. She feared that a great many potential readers would resent me, a foreigner, for exposing a crime against humanity committed in Portugal and nearly completely forgotten. Unexpectedly, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon reached number one on the bestseller list two weeks after its release.
In retrospect, I think that readers were curious about Portuguese-Jewish history, a topic that had been taboo in the country prior to the Portuguese Revolution and the development of a stable democracy. Prior to the Revolution, Portugal had been a repressive, right-wing dictatorship for nearly fifty years. And so my career as a writer began in a unique way, with my first novel published originally in a foreign language.
The American publishers to whom we sent the book turned the book down, however — some for a second time. But we were later able to sell rights to a good independent press in New York as well as a promising fledgling publisher in England. Eventually, the book became a bestseller in both countries. The novel has now been translated into twenty-three languages and has taken me on book tours around the world. My aim has been to create what I call my Sephardic Cycle, a series of independent novels — to be read in any order — that explore the lives of men and women in the far-ranging Sephardic diaspora, which ranges from the Brazil and the Caribbean islands all the way to India.
The book that earned me the most resentment, from readers as far away as India, was Guardian of the Dawn, which explored how the Portuguese exported its Inquisition to Goa, a colony on the Malabar coast, about miles south of Mumbai. In Portugal itself, the Inquisition was first introduced in Its purpose? Although New Christian is the accepted term for these unfortunate victims of religious intolerance, an epithet used in Portugal for many centuries was Marrano, which, according to historians, originally meant swine.
Any New Christian suspected of continuing to practice his or her traditional faith in secret would be arrested by the Inquisition, interrogated and tortured. No infraction was too small to incur the wrath of this religious dictatorship.
For instance, a converted Jew could end up in prison for simply whispering a Hebrew prayer. Or for cleaning his or her house on Friday afternoon, before the start of the Sabbath. The aim of the torturers was to compel their victims to give up the names of their friends and family members who might also be practicing Judaism in secret. Prisoners often spent two years or more in small, nearly lightless cells in special Inquisitorial prisons. Despite the risks of practicing Judaism in secret, the most tenacious New Christians continued to do so.
Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Noise
Tens of thousands of them were imprisoned and tortured all the way up to the s, when the Inquisition was finally dismantled. Many thousands also fled whenever possible to Turkey, Italy, Morocco and a number of other countries where they could openly practice Judaism, creating the Sephardic diaspora. The great Sephardic communities of cities such as Istanbul, Salonika, Ferrara and later Amsterdam and London boasted many learned philosophers, physicians, scientists and financiers who continued to speak Portuguese at home, among them Baruch Spinoza, Uriel da Costa, Gracia Nasi and Amato Lusitano.
In , Portugal imposed this same religious dictatorship on their colonies in India, which meant that a converted Hindu could be locked up for something as simple as making an offering in their home to Ganesha, the elephant-headed God of Wisdom, or to any other deity in the Hindu pantheon.
In Goa, tens of thousands of converted Hindus and their descendants were arrested and tortured — and hundreds burnt alive — by the Inquisition from to The Inquisition was also a diabolically effective money-making scam, since all the assets of its victims were confiscated and given to the Church. Years later, upon his release, he takes his revenge, but it leads to unforeseen — and tragic — consequences.
A rash declaration? After reading their enraged letters, I realized that there are Indian Catholics who deny the existence of the Inquisition in India, much as there are some sick and dishonest individuals who deny the existence of the Holocaust. The narrator, Sophie Riedesel, is a young Christian woman whose younger brother, Hansi, is autistic.
When her beloved Berlin is taken over by the Nazis, she vows to do everything she can to undermine their anti-Semitic regulations and protect her brother from their plans to sterilize him. To live up to her vow, she risks joining a clandestine resistance group called The Ring, headed by her elderly Jewish neighbour, Isaac Zarco. Curiously, when I went to Stockholm and Gothenberg in to promote the Swedish edition of The Seventh Gate , the Swedish media refused to publish any reviews of my book or articles about my visit.
More than 60, individuals were sterilized with state approval, 90 percent of them women, and the program remained active until At the time I visited, the subject of eugenics was still largely taboo. Despite all these difficulties, 99 percent of the thousands of letters and emails I have received over the past 23 years have been enormously positive and generous, and such feedback gives me the encouragement I need to keep going when a book of mine is rejected by a publisher or gets a negative review.
Very possibly the half a dozen messages I got from Israeli readers thanking me for The Search for Sana, which I published in England but for which I was unable to find a publisher in America. The Search for Sana is about two women — Sana, a Palestinian, and Helena, an Israeli — who grow up in the same neighbourhood in Haifa and whose wonderful friendship is undermined and finally destroyed by the conflict between the two peoples. I realized I was a human being and that is what I should hold on to, and let go of any other identities.
You have told the story of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy in the most honest way. You have put on paper everything I was carrying within me. I will no longer have to explain, I will just point people to your book. I was 16 when I escaped and was hiding in Poland for the rest of the war. Unfortunately the rest of my family did not survive.
Speaking for the Silenced
I was very moved by the details of your descriptions of daily life in the ghetto, which reminded me of many of my own experiences. She and the other characters were so alive to me that I felt like I knew them all. I was so emotionally involved that when I finished reading the book, I forgot that they lived 70 years ago and would now all be dead. Thank you for your obvious emotional connection to the Holocaust.
More books by Richard Zimler
Zimler's investigations lead him deeper and deeper into a web of illusions, cruelty and deceit - and finally to September 11, , when the tragedy he witnessed in Perth is set in the starkest of political contexts. Part memoir and part thriller, The Search for Sana blurs the conventional boundaries between fact and fiction as it takes an intimate look at a lifelong friendship, and the inception of an unthinkable crime. The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. The Angelic Darkness. The Warsaw Anagrams. Richard Zimler was born in Manhasset, New York.
After gaining degrees in comparative religion from Duke University and in journalism from Stanford University, he worked as a journalist. In , he moved to Porto, Portugal, where he has taught journalism for the last twelve years. Zimler has won many prizes for his writing, and has lectured on Portuguese-Jewish culture all over the world.
When not writing, he enjoys gardening at his weekend house in the north of Portugal. The World According to Anna. The Abyssinian Proof. The Camel Bookmobile.
- Beeching - The Inside Track.
- Getting a Job in IT the Smart Way!
- Our President Thinks Hes the Messiah.
- The Accidental Cyclist.
- Shopping Cart.
- My Health is Your Wealth.
The Light of Evening. The Unfinished Novel and Other stories. From the Place in the Valley Deep in the Forest. Self's Punishment.