Doña Gracia Mendes-Nasi: From Portugal to the Promised Land

When the Spanish ship docked at Southampton, the people hidden between the crates in the hold breathed more easily. The Netherlands still lay far off, and safety even further, but they felt Spain’s stranglehold on them slackening.

“What now?” a woman pale with sea-sickness whispered.

“Our angel’s London agent comes on board soon. He will inform us whether it is safe to carry on to the Netherlands,” another stowaway spoke from the gloom.

Their “angel” knew what risks she took smuggling secret Jews out of Inquisitorial Spain. But she knew, too, the pain of a life of hiding. And their angel never shied from risk.

She was born in Portugal and christened Beatrice de Luna, but her family never called her that. They were conversos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Christianity who never stopped secretly practicing their Judaism. Her Jewish name — her true name — was Gracia.

As a young woman, she married Don Francisco Mendes-Nasi, a trader who ran a financial empire which flourished under his wife’s talented management. Gracia gave birth to a daughter, known publicly as Brianda, and to Jewish ears alone as Reyna.
In 1536, Francisco died, leaving Gracia a wealthy widow at only twenty-six. Simultaneously, the world around her grew dark, as Portuguese authorities cracked down on secret Jews. Gracia thought of her fatherless daughter and a chill gripped her heart. Portugal is no place to raise a Jewish child.

She was born in Portugal and christened Beatrice de Luna, but her family never called her that. They were conversos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Christianity who never stopped secretly practicing their Judaism. Her Jewish name — her true name — was Gracia.

Francisco’s will left his financial holdings in the hands of his widow and his brother. That brother, Diogo, headed the Antwerp branch of the Mendes-Nasi firm, so Gracia made the bold decision to escape Portugal — no small matter for a woman of her wealth, her every move carefully watched by the authorities — and join him. It meant leaving behind everything and everyone familiar, and enduring steep financial losses, but with her signature bravery and resolution, Gracia went.

Belgium held definite advantages over increasingly-hostile Portugal, but nothing like true freedom. Anti-Semitic rulers severely restricted Jewish trade, and increasingly, Gracia’s business dealings involved not just spices and gems but human lives.

Gracia’s web of contacts crisscrossed Europe and parts of Asia. Together, they knew each road, every border crossing, all the discreet innkeepers, and every official whose palm could be greased. Her ships took Jews from Spain and Portugal to the docks of England, and from England to the Netherlands. There, they found work and shelter in her warehouses until they made it to safety in Italy or Turkey. Other conversos received money from her agents, with instructions: safe routes over the Alps into Italy or the Balkans. She told them which roads to avoid, where they could sleep overnight, and whom to contact in an emergency. Keenly astute, yet warm and sympathetic, she overlooked not a single detail.

Nonetheless, the conversos faced danger at every turn. England, where their ships often had to stop, barred Jews from entering. Natural dangers like bone-chilling cold, avalanches, and lack of food and supplies made the Alps equally hazardous. Routes thought to be safe became death-traps if a single detail went wrong or just one bribed official got replaced. But desperation and determination drove them on.

Doña Gracia realized that the conversos left more than their homeland behind. They left everything but what they could carry, abandoning their valuables and heirlooms to start over as impoverished beggars in a strange land. Not content with saving lives, she began a covert operation to recover their property. In Venice, the man in charge of this effort ran a printing press that specialized in Hebrew books, though he himself was not Jewish: Daniel Bomberg, printer of the first complete Talmud. He would receive the property of fleeing Jews and hold it for them until they arrived in Italy.

Meanwhile, the woman who managed this incredible underground enterprise faced personal tragedy again: her brother-in-law Diogo died, leaving her the sole head of the House of Mendes. In her times, wealth drew a target on a single woman’s back. Monarchs, who’d long had a greedy eye on her money, saw her now as unprotected and vulnerable — ripe for the picking.
“His Royal Highness King Charles V has sent me with a most generous proposition.” The eyes of the courtier seated in Gracia’s reception hall glinted coldly. “You have a daughter, Doña Mendes?”

Gracia’s heart lurched. “I do.”

“His Highness believes he has a suitable match for the young lady — one of his own courtiers. This is a most honorable prospect. You will become a member of the royal court.”

And fill its coffers while thanking it for the privilege, Gracia thought drily. For now, they come with silk gloves and marriage proposals. Next it will be with soldiers and prisons…

“I thank His Highness for his gracious concern for our interests. However, my daughter and I have plans to visit a spa in France. Please beg His Highness’s patience while we make the trip, and immediately upon return we will be most delighted to pursue this proposal.”

But France was just a rung on their ladder to escape. From there, where Gracia fled with as much of her wealth as possible, she traveled to Italy and started over again, in Venice.

Her new home showed its ugly face from the start. Her stay began in prison, after someone accused her of being a secret Jew. Fortunately, the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid II, took an interest in her case. When Spain expelled its Jews, he famously said, “You call this Ferdinand ‘wise’ – he who has impoverished his dominions in order to enrich mine?” Under Bayezid’s pressure, and helped along by bribes, the Venetians released Doña Gracia.

Longing for true safety, she began secretly transferring her assets to Turkey. But despite her desire to resettle there as soon as possible, she gathered her fortitude and waited: if she left now, it would spell certain danger for her European agents.

Although she could not leave for Turkey yet, she did move from Venice to nearby Ferrara, Italy. Here, for the first time in her life, Gracia publicly revealed and reveled in her Judaism. She introduced herself by the Jewish name “Gracia Nasi” and financed the translation of the Torah into Spanish. But this haven collapsed all too soon, when an outbreak of the plague led to the expulsion of the city’s Jews. After another brief stay in Venice — and in prison — Gracia knew it was time. She set sail for Constantinople.
Constantinople! The golden city that promised hope to so many fleeing conversos. Here, at last, Doña Gracia established an openly Jewish home. At last, she was safe herself, but her activism for the Jews left behind never wavered. While continuing to run her escape network in Europe, she threw herself enthusiastically into a range of new projects: supporting the poor, ransoming Jews kidnapped by pirates, building synagogues and yeshivot around the world, and, above all, strengthening the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. She gained permission from the Sultan to resettle Tiberias, an ancient city in northern Israel, and built a thriving community there.

She built herself a palace in Tiberias, too, and began planning her move — but first, she intended to keep an old vow. Before her husband died, Gracia had promised him she would not leave his body in exile. With incredible daring, she arranged for him to be disinterred from the church cemetery in Lisbon and reburied in Tiberias.

Gracia was never able to join him. Old and feeble, she found the journey beyond her strength. Instead, she lived out her last years in Constantinople, the city that had granted her refuge when it seemed the whole world wished to destroy her nation. There she died, one of the best-loved Jewish figures of her time, hailed by the conversos she had saved as “our angel.”

Doña Gracia did not have to be a warrior. She was born into comfort and safety, if only she would agree to abandon her religion and her people. But with iron determination, Doña Gracia risked everything — her fortune, her freedom, her life — to save her nation.


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