Dona Gracia 2

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.

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.

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