Outwardly Catholic but Jewish at home, millionairess Dona Gracia Mendes fled from Portugal to Antwerp to save her daughter from being forced into marriage with a non-Jew. There she joined her wealthy brother-in-law Diogo Mendes who risked being burned at the stake to help Conversos flee to the Ottoman Empire. After marrying Dona Gracia’s sister Brianda, Diogo died in 5302/1542 leaving his wife’s millions in the hands of thirty-three-year- old Dona Gracia.
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Apart from her fabulous fortune Dona Gracia was renowned for bravely continuing the family tradition of helping Converso refugees escape to Moslem countries. Years later, the historian Shmuel Usque wrote eloquently in his book Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel:
“She generously provided money and other needs and comforts to the refugees who arrived destitute, sea-sick and in a stupor in Flanders. Has anyone ever seen a woman risk her life to save her brethren, as if she had inherited Miriam’s innate compassion? Or govern her people with Devorah’s remarkable prudence, or aid the persecuted with Esther’s boundless virtue and surpassing piety, or free the besieged from anguish, like the modest and generous widow Yehudis, a woman of truehearted courage? With her golden arm and Heavenly grasp, [Dona Gracia] raises this people from the depths of travail, she brings them to safe lands and does not cease to guide them, and gathers them to the obedience and mitzvos of their G-d of old” (abridged). Dona Gracia’s days in Antwerp were numbered. Her personal confessor, Father Sebastian, who knew very well that she was suspected of being a heretic, suggested a brilliant way to shake off all suspicions. His idea was that Dona Gracia’s fourteen-year-old daughter Ana should marry an elderly nobleman named Don Francisco d’Aragon. He was well known for his fanatical hatred against Jews. D’Aragon was delighted with the idea and promised King Charles V (Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and king of Spain) a loan of 200,000 ducats from his future wife’s estate if the proposal was realized. King Charles V needed the money badly as he was constantly embroiled in war with France and the Turks. On top of that many German states had become adherents of the new Protestant brand of Christianity and were a military threat.
To avoid this second risk to her daughter, Dona Gracia fled Antwerp under pretext of visiting the therapeutic baths in Aachem to try and ease her chronic intestinal pains. From there she fled to Venice, a popular stopping point for Conversos making their way to Turkey. She brought along crates of pearls, golden coins and textiles. Although most of the fortune was invested in various business schemes, King Charles V did his best to confiscate as much of her fortune as possible.
While in Venice, Dona Gracia obtained permission from the Church to exhume the bones of her husband and parents from their Catholic graves in Lisbon and subsequently reburied them on Har HaZeisim.
By 5310/1550 Dona Gracia’s sister Brianda had become more and more resentful of Dona Gracia’s control of the family’s finances. Afraid that Dona Gracia would abscond to the Ottoman Empire and leave her penniless and starving, Brianda wickedly denounced her sister as a heretic and a Jew. She hoped this would lead to confiscation of Dona Gracia’s assets by the Church. Once that had happened, Brianda could reassert control over her share. To make things worse, the dreaded Inquisition had been established in Venice six months earlier. Dona Gracia fled for her life, this time to the independent Italian city of Ferrara, where Jews enjoyed equality with their gentile neighbors, studying in the local university and working in every profession.
Two seminal books, printed in Ferrara shortly afterwards, were dedicated to her. One was Shmuel Usque’s Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, a book written for Conversos that demonstrates not only how Jewish suffering is instigated whenever they are drawn to idolatry but also asserting that the Jews would be redeemed just as they escaped the hands of Egypt, Rome, and Greece. One section of this book describes Dona Gracia’s help to Jewish-Portuguese refugees, as quoted earlier. The other work was the tremendously popular Ferrara Bible. It was printed in a Jewish-Spanish dialect commonly used by Conversos.
However, Dona Gracia was not complacent. The Inquisition was becoming more aggressive and both oppression of Jews and book burnings were on the rise. It was time to move on to the haven of Constantinople, captured from the Byzantine Christians by Mehmet (II) the Conqueror in 5203/1453. At the time of his conquest Mehmet II had invited Jews “to ascend the site of the Imperial Throne, to dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his vine and his fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and with cattle.” Two decades later, one of the first German Jews to reach Constantinople, Yitzchak Tzarfati of Edime, enthusiastically encouraged his brethren to follow his example,
“I have heard of the afflictions, more bitter than death, that have befallen our brethren in Germany, of the tyrannical laws, the compulsory baptisms and the banishments, which are a daily occurrence,” he wrote to them in a letter preserved in the National Library of Paris. “I am told that, when they flee from one place, a yet harder fate befalls them in another. On all sides, I learn of the anguish of soul and the torment of body by merciless oppressors. The clergy and the monks, false priests that they are, rise up against the unhappy people of Gd. For this reason, they have made a law that every Jew found upon a Christian ship bound for the East shall be flung into the sea. Alas! How evil are the people of G-d in Germany entreated; how sad is their strength departed! They are driven hither and thither, and they are pursued even unto death. “Brothers and teachers, friends and acquaintances! I, Yitzchak Tzarfati, though I spring from a French stock, I was born in Germany, and sat there at the feet of my esteemed teachers. I proclaim to you that Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking, and where, if you will go, all shall yet be well with you. The way to the Holy Land lies open to you through Turkey. Is it not better for you to live under Muslims than under Christians? Here every man dwells at peace under his own vine and fig tree. Here you are allowed to wear the most precious garments. In Christendom, on the contrary, you dare not even venture to clothe your children in red or in blue, according to our taste, without exposing them to insult or to be beaten black and blue, or kicked green and red, and therefore are you are condemned to go about meanly clad, in sad-colored raiment.
“All your days are full of sorrow, even the Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim. They prohibit teaching in your schools, they break in on you during your times of prayer. And now, seeing all these things, Yisroel, why do you sleep? Arise and leave this accursed land forever” (abridged)!
The trickle of Jews from Germany, Slovakia and Hungary, turned into a flood after the 5252/1492 expulsion from Spain. Tzefas, Constantinople, Izmir and Salonica were growing into vibrant Torah centers.
By the time Dona Gracia arrived in 5313/1553, 15,000 taxpaying Jews lived in Constantinople, and the chief rabbi was more powerful that the head of the Greek Orthodox Church. Christians complained that the treacherous Jews were teaching the Turks, now led by Sulemein the Magnificent, how to produce artillery and munitions in order to attack their former “benefactors.” Dona Gracia was known as Dona Beatrice. Now she took the Jewish name Dona Gracia Nasi (in Latin and Portuguese nasi connotes rebirth). Some suggest that the name nasi hints that she was descended from the royal house of David.