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Jewish roots in Cape Verde

Israeli ambassador astonished to discover Jewish heritage of young woman, Katya Ben Shimol, on island off west coast of Africa. Stirred by meeting, ambassador sets out to find grave of Katya's ancestor, Jewish immigrant from Morocco Shlomo Ben Shimol

Itamar Eichner
Published: 04.19.07, 08:01 / Israel Jewish Scene

Visiting the island nation of Cape Verde a few days ago, Israeli Ambassador to Senegal Gideon Bachar was astonished to discover the Jewish heritage of a local young woman.

 

Located off the western coast of Africa in the North Atlantic Ocean, Cape Verde's population is a mix of Africans and Europeans, many of whom, it turns out, are of Jewish origin.

 

Bachar arrived at the archipelago, home to roughly 500,000, to give the president of the small republic his writ of appointment.

 

Many Jews came to the island directly from Portugal after their deportation in 1460, while others trickled in throughout the 19th century.

 

Since many of the Jewish immigrants were bachelors, they married and assimilated into the island's local population. Evidence of the early
Jews can be seen in the common occurrence of Jewish family names (Cohen, Levi, Ben Shimol and Fererra) on the island, Jewish cemeteries, and even a village named Synagoga.

 

Many descendants of the Jewish immigrants are aware of their heritage, and proud of it too, even though they have identified as Christians for generations.

  

Surprise encounter

During the ambassador's stay in Cape Verde, a Spanish-Jewish doctor named Dr. Jose Tristan was also in the country to operate on 20 local children who were born with cleft palates.

 

The ambassador was invited to visit the children, and it was during his hospital call that he met 17-year-old Katya Ben Shimol. A quick background check revealed that the founder of her family was one of a group of Moroccan Jews who arrived in Cape Verde in the 19th century and settled there permanently.

 

The girl displayed curiosity about Judaism and proudly showed the ambassador a small notebook, written in Portuguese, in which she recorded her genealogy along with copies of photographs of her ancestors.

 

One of the photos shows the gravestone of the Jewish founder of her family, Shlomo Ben Shimol, who came to Cape Verde from Tetouan in Morocco and passed away in 1904.

 

Moved by the surprising meeting with the young woman, the ambassador and the doctor decided to set out to find Ben Shimol's grave.

 

Between soaring basalt mountains in the center of the island of Santiagu, the two located the lone grave. Ambassador Bachar said Kaddish over the grave. "The man probably never got to have Kaddish said over him," Dr. Tristan said.

 

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