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Who Was Dona Gracia?

Rabbi Eliezer Eisikovits

The name Dona Gracia may mean little to most of us, the name Beatriz de Luna even less. But 500 years ago, she was the most powerful woman — perhaps the most powerful person — in the Jewish world. Dona Gracia ran a clandestine operation that foiled many of the Inquisition’s plans, smuggling thousands of Jews out from its grasp, under the guise of a lucrative spice trading company. As events are held worldwide this year marking 500 years since her birth, Rabbi Eliezer Eisikovits unveils her amazing story.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

On a sunny day in the middle of 1497, the 70,000 Jewish residents of Portugal suddenly became captives in the largest prison in the world. They were refugees from the Spanish exile who had come to Portugal in the hopes of finding a reprieve. They never imagined that conditions for them in Portugal would be infinitely worse than they had been in the land from which they had been expelled.

A Jew in Spain who chose to cling to his ancestors’ faith had the option of leaving the kingdom and rebuilding his life elsewhere. In Portugal, there was no such option. The religious decrees issued from the royal palace were absolute and uncompromising: every Jew would henceforth be considered Christian, with no exception and no need for the Jews’ consent. The Jews were ordered to adopt foreign names, to participate in Christian services, and to give their children a Catholic education. Spies and guards were posted at every border crossing to prevent Jews from escaping to countries outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. The iron curtain had fallen quickly, isolating the Jews of Portugal from the rest of the world.

Among the myriad Jews who were thrust into this predicament were two brothers, Tzemach and Meir Benvenisti, scions of one of the most distinguished families in Spain. Tzemach’s teachers had predicted that he would become an eminent talmid chacham, but the royal decree had quashed any such plans. Like most other Anusim (forced converts; the Inquisition referred to these hidden Jews as marranos, literally, “pigs”), the brothers strove to avoid Biblical transgressions of Shabbos, refrained from eating nonkosher foods, fasted on Yom Kippur, and attended occasional tefillah gatherings in private homes.

It was impossible to do more than that. Their first names were changed to Francisco and Diego, their family name became Mendes, and even their external appearance was altered beyond recognition. Their tzitzis were replaced by a fashionable leather vest known as a doublet, while their yarmulkes were supplanted by an elegant Portuguese cap. Externally, they appeared to be Portuguese in every way — but the flames of emunah continued to burn within their souls.

Out of consideration for the “New Christians,” the Portuguese king announced that they would be given a respite of thirty years to acclimate to their new lives, during which time the Inquisition would not be active in the kingdom, and no steps would be taken against those who were suspected of continuing to practice Judaism. Thus, the Jews were accorded a measure of tolerance, but at the same time, they evoked the ire of several segments of society. The Christian priests were displeased at the sight of thousands of “former” Jews mumbling their prayers emotionlessly and escaping from church at the earliest possible opportunity. Merchants and craftsmen envied the Jews’ talents and financial success. Some went as far as to dispatch urgent letters to Rome demanding that a “holy office” be established in Lisbon to stamp out the dangerous “apostasy.”

During the very year when thousands of Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, an event occurred that would have a pivotal impact on the future of Portugal. The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route around the southern tip of Africa that led to the legendary Spice Islands in the Far East. Spices, precious stones, and exotic luxurious items began to travel along this route, placing Portugal on the path to becoming an economic power.[1]

In 1510, Francisco and Diego Mendes founded a spice trading company in Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal. Two years later, the House of Mendes opened a branch in Antwerp, at the time the commercial capital of Northern Europe. In a very short time, the two intrepid brothers succeeded in taking over the prestigious European spice market, and particularly the black pepper trade. Francisco Mendes earned the title of “the spice king of Europe.” The brothers amassed a huge fortune and established an international network of distributors throughout Europe.

The House of Mendes had agents in Lisbon, Antwerp, London, Paris, Aix-les-Baines, Venice, Florence, Ancona, Salonica, Alexandria, and Constantinople. These agents managed a vast network that advanced the company’s interests, while maintaining a constant stream of information and communication between the branches. In the era before modern communication, the existence of such a network gave the House of Mendes a strategic advantage of inestimable value. A large portion of the wealth that the company amassed was invested in loans to kings, princes, and bishops. The money flowed generously, but also under the watchful eyes of the Mendes brothers. Their financial ties translated into incredibly powerful political leverage, and agents of the House of Mendes found doors opening for them in high places at surprising times.

All of this was the public side of the company. But the House of Mendes had another, utterly secret side. It served as an international underground, perhaps the first of its type in history, with two ambitious goals: to weaken the Inquisition, and, at the same time, to rescue thousands of Jews from its clutches. The operatives of this clandestine network had to contend with the Catholic powers of Europe without the benefit of any sort of military structure. What they did have, however, was a hefty dose of daring, resourcefulness, and Jewish mesiras nefesh.

They almost succeeded.

The Inquisition’s supporters found themselves contending with an efficient, sophisticated fifth column that utilized the cumbersome bureaucracy of the Church to hamper its efforts in every possible way. Documents would disappear in transit, vital files would be lost, important messages would never arrive at their destination, princes and rulers would succumb to massive bribes, and guards would disappear or fall asleep at crucial moments. The date on which the Inquisition had been scheduled to begin in Portugal had long passed, but the diligent operations of the House of Mendes caused the church’s activities to be postponed repeatedly.

Things came to a head in 1535, when representatives of the Anusim reached an agreement with the pope’s confidant, Marco de la Ruvera, whereby the Vatican would receive a payment of 30,000 ducats in exchange for a papal proclamation permanently forbidding the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal. Had this historic agreement been put into effect, it would certainly have had far-reaching ramifications. But a dispute erupted at the last minute: Drawing on past experience, the Anusim refused to deliver the money until the pope fulfilled his part of the agreement, while the pope insisted on receiving the full payment in advance. Thus was lost the last opportunity to prevent the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal.

A year later, the flames of the auto-da-fé began to burn in the public squares of Lisbon.


[1] Portugal’s success came at the expense of the city of Venice, which had previously held a monopoly on the spice trade and was now displaced from its prestigious position. Interestingly, the Jewish statesman Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, who had been exiled from Spain only a few years earlier, was selected to represent Venice in trade negotiations with Portugal, in which the Venetians hoped to retain at least a portion of the lucrative spice trade.


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