A fascinating article in The New York Times details the rediscovery of what the writer, Joseph Berger, calls “perhaps the most significant artifact documenting the arrival of Jews in the New World.” The 16th-century manuscript, a prison diary written by Luis de Carvajal the Younger, a settler in New Spain (now Mexico), disappeared in 1932, but resurfaced just over one year ago, when a London auction house put it up at a fraction of its value.
But last year the relic caught the eye of a prominent collector of Judaica, Leonard Milberg, when it showed up for resale at the Swann Galleries in Manhattan. It was now priced at more than 50 times what it had sold for just a few months earlier in England. Mr. Milberg consulted a variety of experts, who told him it might be the actual manuscript, and worth as much as $500,000.
Almost as interesting as the provenance of the find is the story of its author, “a secret Jew” who masqueraded as a Catholic and was executed by the Spanish Inquisition after his duplicity was uncovered.
De Carvajal, a trader, was arrested around 1590 as a proselytizing Jew and, while in prison, began writing a sometimes messianic memoir, the Memorias, on pages roughly four inches by three inches. In it, he called himself Joseph Lumbroso – Joseph the Enlightened. It begins: “Saved from terrible dangers by the Lord, I, Joseph Lumbroso of the Hebrew nation and of the pilgrims to the West Indies in appreciation of the mercies received from the hands of the Highest, address myself to all, who believe in the Holy of Holies and who hope for great mercies.”
The memoir tells how he learned from his father that he was Jewish, circumcised himself with an old pair of scissors, secretly embraced the faith, and persuaded siblings to embrace it.
The manuscript forms part of a New-York Historical Society exhibition, and digital copies have been made available to Princeton University and Manhattan’s Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. Berger quotes Milberg as saying that the existence of the document proves “that Jews were part of the fabric of life in the New World,” and making the work public is a means of “getting back at anti-Semitism.”