Benjamin Benatar was born in Morocco in 1809. The year of his arrival in Brazil is not known, but he came to Rio de Janeiro from Bahia on July 9th, 1829 according to the Register of Foreigners, col. 423, vol. 5, page 24vs.: Benjamin Benatar, Moroccan, 20 years old, from Bahia to Rio de Janeiro. Research by the historians Egon and Frieda Wolff results in the information that Benatar established a commercial agency leaving Rio de Janeiro in southern direction on March 15th, 1838. From this year on he was living in Vassouras until his death in 1859. There he was very much appreciated by the local community, as he contributed in many ways to the progress and well-being of this small township which, at that time, was known as a keystone of a prominent nobility, the “coffee barons”. Gifted with an excellent commercial vision and preoccupied about the non-existent social life of the inhabitants of the town, he founded a restaurant serving simple meals, inaugurated the first ballroom. was one of the founders of the Masonic Loge “Estrêla do Oriente” (Orient Star). Moved by his high spirit of humanism and justice, he defended a German who had made his appearance in the village and was supposed of sinister intentions as a spy. Because of all this, he was considered an excellent element and well-liked by all in Vassouras and, even being a Jew, was elected a Brother of the Santa Casa de Misericórdia de Vassouras, a Catholic Beneficent Society taking care of the poor people of the whole district.
When Benjamin Benatar died, in 1859, leaving his family in a difficult financial situation, he could not be buried in the local cemetery belonging to a religious Order, but the Brotherhood of the Santa Casa, recognising his great importance and value to the township, granted him a burial in the garden of their hospital.
Not many years later, Morluf Levy, also a Jew from Morocco, was buried in this same garden. Contrarily to his fellow countryman, his history is not well known. According to the few data found by the Wolffs, Levy arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1872, and nothing more has been discovered but his death in Vassouras in 1878 and his burial alongside the tomb of Benatar. His tombstone resisted the passing years though not on the original spot; it is well conserved and restoration not necessary.
THE JEWISH MEMORIAL OF VASSOURAS
Vassouras, a small town of 20.000 inhabitants, lies in a mountainous region about 70 miles distant from Rio de Janeiro from where it is reached by an access road from Via Dutra, main road Rio de Janeiro – São Paulo. In November of 1985, the historians Egon and Frieda Wolff received a visitor, dr. Roberto L. Benathar, who, interested in his family history, called their attention to a book by one Ignácio Raposo “History of Vassouras”. Citing the Santa Casa de Misericórdia of that town, Raposo writes that:
“ Worthy of mention about this important establishment is the small. but interesting garden where we found the tombstone of the Israelite Benjamin Benatar who, due to his religion being different from the one adopted officially by Brazil, could not be buried in the cemetery. He would have been interred in the fields, if the Santa Casa had not given him a resting place in their garden…”.
A later part of the book tells us that:
On March 5th, 1878 another Jew, not less liked, Morluf Levy, was laid to rest at the side of Benatar, by the Santa Casa de Misericórdia, friend and protector of the indigent people of the town as well as of any foreigner.”
In January of 1986, the Wolffs visited Vassouras where they saw the one still existing tombstone discovering that it was not the one of Benatar, but of Levy, lying on its side, but intact, with a clear-cut Hebrew inscription. Nobody knew what had happened to the one of Benatar. Not even the exact spot where the two had been buried was still remembered. After this visit, thanks to publications of the Wolffs, the existence of Jews in Vassouras during the later part of the 19th century became widely known.
About four years later, middle of 1990, Dr. Luiz Benyosef, a geophysicist and at that time director of the Magnetic Observatory of Vassouras, contacted the Wolffs by phone and Egon Wolff suggested that he visit the garden of the former hospital of the Santa Casa, where in our days exists a Home for Old People and where two Jews had been buried middle of last century.
Benyosef who never before had visited the garden, did so now and discovered the tombstone lying beneath a pigsty. Rather upset, he contacted Egon again and the two started to plan recuperation of the site, as long as transfer of the remains was impossible due to the length of time passed since burial – more than a hundred years – and also of uncertainty about the exact spot of the graves. Dialogue of the two continued, but due to illness and necessary surgery of Egon the plans had to be postponed and, unfortunately, Egon could not do anymore what he had planned to do.
After a few months had gone by, his widow and Benyosef took up the interrupted conversations about a possible restoration of the site. Frieda invited Dr. José Kogut and also the treasurer of the Cemitério Comunal Israelita of Rio de Janeiro, Dr. Alberto Salama to join her and Luiz forming a group and these four people succeeded to start the task, travelling to Vassouras and meeting the local authorities, the first trip being followed by many more.
Roberto Burle Marx, Brazilian landscapes, internationally well-known, a friend of Luiz Benyosef, heard of the story about the two Jews of Vassouras and became so enthused that he offered to prepare the project, graciously, with the help of the young architect Claudia Rosier.
Many more joined the effort to make a dream come true. The Mayor of Vassouras gave orders to clean the site, also donating the tombstone needed to hold the new marble plate with the name and dates of Benatar. Professor Severino Sombra de Albuquerque, president of Fundação Universitária Fluminense (University Foundation) donated all manual work for the job and his son Joaquim José, an architect, supervised personally all work done during the construction. The Chevra Kadish Society (Cemitério Comunal Israelita) donated the funds for all needed material.
FRIENDS SOCIETY OF THE JEWISH MEMORIAL OF VASSOURAS
The Jewish Memorial of Vassouras consists of ornamental flowerbeds with pine trees and native regional plants. Due to this fact, it needs much upkeep and daily attention. To this possible, a new group of people answered the appeal of Frieda and Luiz and helped found the Friends Society of the Jewish Memorial of Vassouras which, thanks to a small annual contribution of the Friends looks after and pays for the necessary maintenance of the site. At the end of the year, after accounting for expenses, a good part of the balance is donated to the Old People’s Home, new occupying the building of the former hospital. Contribution of all is very important as, besides preserving the monument, it helps to maintain about one hundred old people, most of them members of indigent families of Vassouras and its surrounding villages.
The Jewish Memorial is a monument of small dimensions, but a giant because of its meaning. In a little piece of land belonging to a religious Christian institution, two Jews, immigrants from Morocco, found their last resting place giving evidence of the great solidarity and sense of equality of the Brazilian people. It is a symbol, a memorial honouring all immigrants arriving on Brazilian soil and who, independent of origin, religion and tradition, became brothers, completely part of the native community and, as well as with their stories, mix their remains with the soil of the country which accepted them and gave them a new home.