Aharon Halevi and the 2017 fires in Portugal

Aharon Halevi and the 2017 fires in Portugal

Credit: Expresso

By Gabriel Senderowicz

In February 2019, during Shabbaton Terumah at the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, twenty Rabbis from different parts of the world said Kaddish in memory of Aharon Ben-Zion Halevi (civil name: Andrew Smiler) who had burned to death in the fires of Oliveira do Hospital two years earlier.

Halevi was born in England, and pursued a successful career in criminal law, but one day he grew tired of the bar and moved to a remote spot in the Egyptian desert, close to Libya, to write his first novel, Blood of Kings, which became one of the top 10 bestsellers of historical fiction on Amazon.

Halevi’s safety was often in jeopardy. One night, he was attacked by a venomous snake and, amazingly, was saved by a wild cat he had got into the habit of feeding. In gratitude, the writer adopted the animal and his mate, who became his companions forever.

After the Egyptian Revolution the new authorities suspected that this English writer was in fact Jewish and therefore a spy. His visa was revoked and he was given only a few days to leave the country together with the cats he had befriended in the desert.

Halevi then decided to move into a rural mountain abode in a small town in Portugal, which offered the climate and the inspiration that were ideal to continue immersed in his work. He was not to know that in the future Oliveira do Hospital would be the scene of a natural catastrophe that took the lives of more than half a hundred people, including himself.

For more than two years, Halevi had been writing hard in the small basement of his home. He corresponded all over the world via the very weak local internet and the small local post office. He wrote texts of great quality that he shared, bit by bit, with friends, and at the same time he did everything to make his cats adapt to his new homeland.

He feared not for his own health, but for that of his animals who had radically changed their natural habitat and food. Their contact with the surrounding population could kill the cats through diseases to which they were not immune. Besides, there was always the possibility that a hunter would kill them.

On Sunday, 15 October 2017, Halevi's family heard the news about the terrible forest fires spreading through central Portugal, but he informed his mother that the Portuguese authorities said everything was under control, so he need not flee immediately. The disaster that occurred in June with 66 dead had alerted the State and it was not believable that something similar would happen again.

Halevi’s body was found days later near his house. The great Jewish jurist, writer and thinker who found shelter in Portugal was clutching the carriers he used for his cats, who tragically also perished.