A wandering Jew

My name is David Joseph Nunes Nabarro, and I am in the process of applying for Portuguese citizenship under the provisions of the Portuguese law introduced in 2015 (Decree-Law 30-A/2015), which can enable Sephardic Jews with Portuguese origins stretching back to the early sixteenth century to claim the right to Portuguese citizenship.

In making my application with the much-appreciated support of the Oporto Jewish community (Comunidade Israelita do Porto), I met the delightful Michael Rothwell, an English man long-time resident in Portugal, who asked me to write a little about my family’s antecedents.

And so, while collecting my thoughts, it was that I came to realise the depth and breadth of my European origins, stretching on my maternal side out to the East to a remote rural village on the Czech - Polish border, and on my paternal side out to the West to cultured and enlightened Portugal, and that my family, like so many others over the centuries, are but wandering Jews constantly buffeted by tides of anti-Semitism and European political tumult.

The Sephardi Jews in England

My paternal family’s surname is Nabarro, and we are one of the Sephardic families who settled in England as a result of Menasseh ben Israel successfully influencing Oliver Cromwell to allow the resettlement of Jews in London during the mid-1650’s post the Civil War.

Menasseh was born in Madeira in 1604, a year after his parents had fled mainland Portugal because of the Inquisition.  Subsequently, in 1610, his family moved to the Netherlands, where Amsterdam had become an important centre of European Jewish life and where our Nabarro family was already living.

Menasseh rose to eminence not only as a rabbi and author, but also as a printer, and in November 1655 arrived in London where he published his Humble Addresses to the Lord Protector, as a result of which Cromwell summoned the Whitehall Conference in December of the same year.

The Whitehall Conference was called to discuss whether Jews should be readmitted to England, and was where the judges Glynne and Steele declared "there was no law which forbade the Jews' return to England", as they had been expelled by royal decree of King Edward I, and not by formal parliamentary action.

Most Jews in England, from the third quarter of the 17th century until the early part of the 19th century, were Sephardic, and it was only with successive waves of refugees from the pogroms and anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe that today’s far larger Ashkenazic community arrived.

More recently during the 20th century, England has seen the welcome arrival of a significant new influx of Sephardic Jews from Iran and the Middle East.

The Nabarro’s

Our surname Nabarro means simply I am a “Man from Navarre”, the province of northern Spain whose capital is Pamplona.

Since by and large Jews in mediaeval Europe were not landowners, I imagine, though cannot prove, that our then named “Navarro” family may have lived, relatively peacefully in Pamplona from perhaps as early as the eighth century AD, in an age dominated by Muslim rule when at times the Jews of Spain were able to prosper as doctors, lawyers and bankers.

All that would have come to a horrid halt with the Alhambra Decree of 1492, when King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, whose two adjoining kingdoms covered by far the largest portion of the Iberian peninsula, expelled all of the Jews from Spain.

Our Family, like many other Jewish families, then moved briefly to Portugal, where the at first seemingly tolerant King Manuel, known as “Manuel the Fortunate”, spotted the opportunity to increase revenues from trade by welcoming the displaced Spanish Jews.  However, having set his heart on marrying the Infanta Isabella, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, he in turn in December 1496, signed an Edict of Expulsion giving the Jews of Portugal just 10 months to once again be on their way.


At some point during our family’s stay in Portugal, we adopted the Portuguese name “Nunes”, meaning “son of Nuno”, initially as the first part of a double-barrelled surname “Nunes Navarro” and subsequently as a forename given to each child in each generation for the last five hundred years.

Via Amsterdam to England

From Portugal, like the ben Israel family and so many others, the Nabarro’s decamped to Amsterdam, a then beacon of religious tolerance.  We believe our family was living in Amsterdam by the mid-16th century and certainly my paternal grandfather Joseph Nabarro, a London-based solicitor, was able to establish which seats our family had occupied in Amsterdam’s Great Synagogue during the 17th century.

And from Amsterdam, bit by bit, our Nunes Nabarro family moved to London.  Initially visiting for trading purposes, we know that one of our Nunes Nabarro ancestors was buried in the first Jewish cemetery in Bethnal Green in London’s East End in 1670.  And we suspect that for approximately one hundred and eighty years our Family moved backwards and forwards between Amsterdam and London for business, but always returning to Amsterdam to acquire new Sephardic Jewish brides!

Eventually in October 1851 my great, great grandfather David Nunes Nabarro settled permanently in London, arriving from Amsterdam via Southampton with his wife Rachel and my great-grandfather Jacob, then aged six, aboard the passenger ship Adonis.

In 1870, great-grandfather Jacob, by then 25 years old and working as a diamond broker in London, fetched and married his bride from Amsterdam, Hannah Ricardo, a daughter of David Ricardo of Amsterdam.

It is not clear to me how Hannah’s father was related to the rich and famous David Ricardo, the influential classical economist and Member of Parliament for the rotten borough of Portarlington, who owned Gatcombe Park, now the home of Anne, Britain’s Princess Royal, but I have in my possession a portrait of that David, which used to hang in my grandfather’s office in Piccadilly.

Subsequently members of our family have worked variously as accountants, a banker, doctors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, a magistrate, a politician, and professors, and two of whom have been knighted.  And in England, as our family anglicised a part of them also assimilated, either converting to the Church of England as notional Protestants or, in the increasingly secular modern age, affirming no religious affiliation at all.

Finally, with the United (or perhaps not so united!) Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU and Brexit, the attractions to me of returning to our roots and reclaiming Portuguese citizenship became overwhelming.  As they say, “What goes round, comes round”!  Viva Portugal.

The Orenstein’s

While my father’s family, the Nabarro’s, were safely, long-time settled in England, enjoying the benefits of prosperous upper-middle class lives, my mother’s family, of Polish extraction, but hoping they’d upgraded by moving to the more cosmopolitan university town of Heidelberg, in Baden, South West Germany, were being rocked by the tumultuous years of ever increasing anti-Semitism, culminating in the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust.

My Mother was born Cilly (but later in England named Cecily) Orenstein in Heidelberg on 25th March 1925, by much the youngest of four sisters.

Her parents, Heinrich and Selma Orenstein had emigrated from Germany to Poland in 1908 and settled in Heidelberg, Baden, tragically believing they had found long-term safety there from the frightening pogroms of Eastern Europe.

But, as the dark clouds of Nazism spread, first over Germany and then Europe, their dreams were shattered, and the Orenstein family disintegrated.

Firstly, in August 1936, Cecily’s beloved eldest sister, Zita, left Germany for the safety of British controlled Palestine to join her former employer and subsequently husband Herr Karl Altschüler, a wealthy Jew from Mannheim who’d wisely seen the writing on the wall and fled Germany in 1934.

Then in April 1937, her father Heinrich died of stress caused by the cumulative effects of the 1st April 1933 German general economic boycott of Jewish owned shops and the cruel subsequent Aryanisation programme, which excluded German Jews from all aspects of economic life and had forced the closure of his business.

By 1938, a second sister, Fay, was living as an au pair in London working for a wealthy Jewish family called Davis.

And it was Fay who saved Cecily’s life by persuading the kindly and generous Davis’s to sponsor her to come to England in mid-January 1939, aged still just thirteen years old, thus without doubt saving her life.

Cecily’s mother Selma and her other sister Käthe were not so lucky and died in the Holocaust, Selma in Auschwitz in October 1944 and Käthe sometime after 1942 we sadly know not where.

My Parents

My mother Cecily took to England like a duck to water, excelled at school, turned into a very pretty young lady, and in February 1947 married my father Eric Nabarro, a chartered accountant who had fought in the Royal Artillery through the Second World War, who she met at a Sephardi synagogue dance in 1946.  My parents lived a long and very happy life together, till both dying of old age in London in the early part of this century.

I count myself profoundly lucky to have had such good and generous parents, and to have grown up in the safe, peaceful, and prosperous post-war period in England, with little anti-Semitism and great opportunities.

Viva Portugal

Today, the World seems a much more dangerous place than during my treasured childhood and Portugal shines like a welcoming beacon of sanity and safety inviting me home.  As I wrote earlier “Viva Portugal”.