New Magnes documents detail hardships of Inquisition

Centuries-old documents from the Spanish Inquisition — offering a rare glimpse of the hardships faced by individuals accused of practicing Judaism — have been added to the Judah L. Magnes Museum's permanent collection.

This major collection of Spanish Inquisition documents provides a valuable resource to scholars, according to representatives of the Berkeley museum.

The collection of more than 1,000 pages dating from 1672 to 1739, offers vivid accounts of what happened to Jews during the centuries-long Inquisition.

The materials include papers detailing an investigation into whether three Jews captured on a Moorish ship were in fact conversos, hidden Jews who had converted to Christianity but were still practicing Judaism. An account of the prosecution of a 15-year-old girl for practicing Jewish "rituals" also is included.

"These were cases against people who presumably had converted to Christianity and were being harassed and investigated for practicing Judaism secretly," said Seymour Fromer, director emeritus of the Magnes, who was instrumental in obtaining the papers.

Most focus on the Inquisition in Mallorca and activities concerning the Spanish island's converts.

Known as the chuetas, Mallorca's converted Jews lived in their own section of the island, where they were often investigated for continuing to practice Judaism, Fromer said. The chuetas still exist as a community today, and some individuals are rediscovering their Jewish roots, he added.

Like Jews throughout Spain and Spanish-ruled territories, including Mexico, the chuetas faced consequences for practicing Judaism — from losing their property to death, Fromer said. Throughout the Inquisition, which started in the late 1400s, Spanish Jews were ordered to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion.

"This shows the courage of Jews who tried to save their lives by converting and still retaining their Jewish identity," Fromer said. "You get a very vivid understanding of what was the Inquisition, how detailed the investigations were and how relentless it was."

The documents, which the museum acquired from an individual scholar, are handwritten in Spanish, said Tova Gazit, librarian at the museum's Blumenthal Rare Book and Manuscript Library. They spell out practices carried out against the conversos, with lists of property that was confiscated. Historians at universities throughout the country have reviewed the documents and verified their authenticity, she said.

A history professor from Boston College has already expressed interest in examining the collection, and Magnes officials say they expect other scholars to use the collection for research. The collection is not open to the public.

Academic interest in the documents is heightened by the Catholic Church's recent desire to study the history of the Inquisition, Fromer said. "The church is taking a look at this and here we have a way to sort of look at it from the Jewish angle."

The Magnes documents will complement a major collection of Mexican Inquisition documents at U.C. Berkeley, Fromer said.

The acquisition was made possible with the help of Thomas F. Schwartz and through the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation and museum trustees Marvin Weinreb and Harry Blumenthal.