In 2016, the Brazilian-American children’s writer Daniela Weil spent six months in the city of Salvador, in Brazil’s Bahia state. Unlike her native São Paulo, which has a thriving Jewish community, Salvador has only some 200 Jews. But Weil soon learned that the city—once the center of the Portuguese Inquisition in the New World—had a mikveh (ritual bath). She eventually met Bruno Guinard, the transplanted Frenchman who discovered the mikveh on the grounds of the hotel he owns, and told her its story:
“A few years ago,” he began, “a Jewish guest from Europe noticed the odd-looking fountain near the courtyard. She told me she thought it might be a mikveh.”
What was a mikveh? he wondered. He shrugged it away, until a second Jewish visitor asked the same question.
He decided to go to the office of historical heritage to inquire about the guests’ assertion. They sent a team to inspect the hotel, and gave him a verdict: the fountain was nothing more than a Portuguese bath. Now, Bruno knew little if nothing of Jewish history. He had heard of Turkish Baths, and Japanese baths, but he knew he had never heard of a Portuguese bath before. And he knew baths only began being built in the homes in Salvador in the 19th century. That made him think something was indeed fishy. His curiosity led him to jump down the research rabbit hole himself.
Bruno began to research Crypto-Jews during the Inquisition. He learned of all the different ways that they laid low: Torah scrolls hidden behind false walls, secret compartments in homes, subtle markings on stone. Despite little academic research about the Jews in Bahia, many historians believe that up to three-fifths of the population may have been “New Christians,” Jews who converted during the Inquisition, [or their immediate descendants]. Bruno found out that about 80 percent of the Inquisitorial cases in Bahia were for secret Jewish practices.
Subsequently, several scholars have confirmed Guinard’s suspicion.