My Ancestry Research Led Me to Heaven on Earth (and Got Me a European Passport)


That afternoon, I was finally able to meet some of the protagonists. We drove out of town to the padlocked Jewish cemetery of Ponta Delgada, which contains the graves of my ancestors, including José, who I spotted was born on March 4, my own birthday.

I placed a small stone (actually a volcanic rock) on the corner of his grave, as is Jewish tradition, and I did the same on the graves of his father, Abraham, and his wife, Rachel. The cemetery seemed humble, quiet, enclosed behind a high wall on a busy road outside of town. Symbolic of the intimacy of the Jewish community, I suppose, but also, in my interpretation, a physical reminder of how Sephardic Jews have been marginalized through the centuries. Indeed, while in Sao Miguel, I had inquired about the history of their historic persecution in Portugal and discovered that in 2015 the Portuguese government had passed a law allowing descendants of exiled Sephardic Jews to apply for a Portuguese passport. That was a project for another day, though.

First meeting with a distant relative

My ancestor hunt was coming to an end. I’d walked through this one-island Jurassic Park twice, gazed at turquoise volcanic lakes and browsed through archives, but felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing: I didn’t ( knowingly) met another descendant of José Bensaude. On my last day in Sao Miguel, I asked around if anyone knew someone I could meet, just for five minutes. And then, on the way back from the cemetery, a phone call. A family member had heard whispers in the wind of my request (it’s a small island), and he was meeting me at my hotel at six o’clock.


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