Marrano escape – Dr. Nunez

Dr. Nunez was in dire straits. Would he and his family ever succeed in escaping the eagle eye of their fanatical guards?


5252/1492 was a watershed year. That was when tens of thousands of Jews decided whether to retain wealth and privilege at the cost of their Yiddishkeit by converting to Catholicism, or to leave Spain with little more than the shirts on their backs. A few years later, the Jews of Portugal were faced with a similar predicament. It says much of the devotion of those times that even those Jews who made the wrong choice often clung to Judaism at enormous risk to their lives and passed their dangerous secret on to their children and grandchildren.

Dr. Samuel Nunez of Lisbon, Portugal, was born into such a family. Two hundred years and four generations after the Expulsion, together with his family, he was still clinging to whatever mitzvos he could. Publicly, he was a distinguished doctor serving high dignitaries of the Catholic Church while in private he and the members of his family were committing “crimes” that could earn them death at the stake.

All went well until the spring of 5486/1726 when “familiars (spies) of the Inquisition” caught him, his wife Rebecca and his three children in the middle of a Pesach Seder. For most Marranos, this “seeking the L-rd according to their prohibited faith” would have signified torture and death. However, Dr. Nunez was the private physician and good friend of the Grand Inquisitor who was suffering from an enlarged prostrate gland and was highly reluctant to lose the good doctor’s services.

An agreement was struck. Dr. Nunez would be released on condition that two Inquisition officials live in his home, day and night, keeping a sharp eye on his activities and ensuring that he never again stray into heresy. Forced to agree, the doctor now had to endure eternal imprisonment of conscience in his own home, with no hope of even secretly preserving the tenets of his forefathers. He and other secret Jews felt that life in Portugal was unbearable. They included his aunt, Abigail de Lyon, whose body
was scarred for life after being bound to the rack, and David Mendez Machado, whose older brother had been burnt at the stake after spurning the opportunity to convert.

Many years later, a descendant of one of these fugitive Jews recorded what happened next:

“The doctor had a large and elegant mansion on the banks of the Tagus [River] and being a man of large fortune, he was in the habit of entertaining the principal families of Lisbon. On a pleasant summer day, he invited a party to dinner, and among the guests was a captain of an English brigantine (ship) anchored at some distance in the river. While the company were amusing themselves on the lawn, the captain invited the family and part of the company to accompany him on board the brigantine and partake of a lunch prepared for the occasion.

“All the family, together with the spies of the Inquisition and a portion of the guests climbed on board the vessel, and while they were below in the cabin enjoying the hospitality of the captain, the anchor was weighed, the sails unfurled, and the weather being fair, the brigantine shot out of the Tagus, was soon at sea, and carried the whole party to England.

“It had been previously arranged between the doctor and the captain, who had agreed, for a thousand moidores in gold, to convey the family to England, who were in the painful necessity of adopting this plan of escape to avoid detection. The ladies had secretly stowed away all their diamonds and jewels, which were quilted in their dresses, and the doctor previously changed all his securities into gold, [which] was distributed among the gentlemen of the family and carried around in leathern belts. His house, plate, furniture, servants, equipage (carriage), and even the dinner cooked for the occasion were all left, and were subsequently seized by the Inquisition and confiscated to the state.”


The descendant continues by describing how the doctor joined a group of about forty Jews sailing overseas to the recently founded American colony of Georgia, named after the English
monarch, King George II, newly established for colonists ‘who could not make a comfortable living in England, men of good morals who were not in debt, or, if in debt, whose creditors were willing for them to leave England.’

Some time earlier, Britain had granted 10,000 pounds sterling to twenty-one trustees and dispatched them to found the new colony. Now these Jews set off to join them. As the descendant reports:

“On the arrival of Doctor Nunez and family in London, the settlement of Georgia and the fine climate and soil of that country were the subjects of much speculation. When the ship which conveyed Governor [James] Oglethorpe to that new settlement was about [to sail], the doctor and his whole family embarked as passengers, not one of whom could speak the English language.”

Mr. Benjamin Sheftall, one of the Jews on board, recorded the group’s momentous arrival in his journal, starting off by listing all their names: “The names of the Jews who arrived in Savannah, Georgia on the 11th day of July, 1733: Doctor Nunis (sic), Mrs. Nunis his mother, Daniel Nunis, Moses Nunez, Sipra Nunez, Shem Noah their servant. These Jews were the first of our nation who came to this country [Georgia]. They brought with them a Safer Torah with two cloaks, and a circumcision box. for the use of the congregation they intended to establish.”

Dr. Nunez was the second Jewish doctor to arrive in America. The first was Jacob Lumbrozzo who had arrived in Maryland almost eighty years before.

His arrival was not a moment too soon. A terrible fever was raging among the colonists and 29 of the 114 original settlers had died. With a combination of laudanum (opium), lemon extract, ipecacuanha, cinchona bark (quinine), tartar emetic, jimson weed, and sassafras root tea, Dr. Nunez managed to bring the plague under control. However, once the air had cleared, not all the colonists were delighted to realize that over a third of their new colony was now Jewish.

True, the “Charter of Trustees” of the new colony had guaranteed liberty of conscience and worship to all settlers except Papists (Catholics), but now the trustees felt that Jews should also have been added to the blacklist and ordered Governor Oglethorpe to deny them land and throw them out of Georgia at the first possibility. They complained that “certain Jews have been sent to Georgia contrary to the intentions of the trustees and which may be of ill consequence to the colony.” What if this Jewish influx was the beginning of a trend that might create a Zion outside Zion?

When Oglethorpe argued that Dr. Nunez had battled the colonists’ fever, the trustees retorted that he could compensate the doctor if he wanted, but nevertheless, the Jews must under no circumstances be given an inch of land. Oglethorpe refused to comply, believing that the Jews would be an invaluable asset for his new “Mediterranean colony of wine, olive oil, silk, and indigo.” He allowed the Jews to settle down in the new country and they swiftly gained everyone’s respect and acceptance.

As a local priest, the Reverend Bolzius, wrote back to Germany in 5499/1739:

“We are [in] close [proximity] to the Spaniards and on account of such
dangerous proximity, care is taken to keep down Negro slaves and Roman Catholics. With these exceptions, all sects and all kinds of people are tolerated and are permitted to enjoy all manner of liberty like native Englishmen. Even the Jews, of whom several families are here already, enjoy all priveleges (sic) the same as other colonists.”

Meanwhile, David Mendez Machado, the Marrano whose older brother had been burnt at the stake, married Dr. Nunez’s daughter, moved with her to New York, and became chazzan of its famous Shearith Yisrael Congregation.


Slowly, the doctor’s family grew used to the freedom to practice Judaism as they wished although it was not always easy for them to abandon all their ingrained Catholic habits. For example, it is reported that “for years after their arrival in this country, the female members of the family were unable to repeat their [Jewish] prayers without the assistance of the Catholic rosary (beads), by reason of the habit acquired in Portugal for the purpose of lending the appearance of Catholic form should they be surprised at their devotions.”

In his journal, Sheftall described how the Jews established a religious life: “Month of July, 1733. The Jews met and agreed to open a Synagogue, name K.K. (Kehillah Kodesh) Mickva Israel.” A house was rented in Market Square. and put in proper order, where Divine service was performed for years. Mr. Benjamin Mendez of London sent to this congregation a Safer Torah, also a lamp for the Feast of Hannucca, and a quantity of books.”

However, this kehillah dissolved seven years later when most of its members left the colony. As a colony journal records, “.All the Jews except one had left the Colony.” What caused this sudden departure?

The exodus was probably sparked by Governor Oglethorpe’s military aggression against Spanish Florida to the northwest that had culminated in British defeat. It seems that rumors of Spanish plans to attack Georgia panicked Dr. Nunez into fleeing north to Charleston in South Carolina. The last thing he wanted was to fall into the Inquisition’s clutches a second time.

Once the threat had passed, Dr. Nunez and most of Georgia’s Jews returned and soon afterwards, all record of the devoted doctor is lost. The best known of his many American descendants is his great-grandson, Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jew to become Commodore (a rank equivalent to Admiral) in the US Navy. True to his great-grandfather’s caring disposition, Levy was instrumental in abolishing the navy’s terrible punishment of flogging men before the mast.

(Sources: [1] Weinstein, Dr. Alfred A. “Georgia’s First Physician. ” Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, Summer 1961. [2] Phillips, N. Taylor. “Family History of the Reverend David Mendez Machado.” American Jewish Historical Review volume 2. [3] Huhner Leon, “The Jews of Georgia in Colonial Times. ” American Jewish Historical Review volume 10. [4] Sheftall, Mordecai, “The Jews in Savannah.” The Occident vol, 1 no. 8)


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