Day 536: Gracia Mendes Nasi – The Heroine Of Antwerp

originally published June 19, 2013

After having poured so many ugly words into yesterday’s article – words like ‘vivisection’, ‘starvation’ and ‘plague-fleas’ – it’s a good day to spin that gloom around and turn it into the antithesis of gloom… moolg.

No wait, ‘moolg’ is apparently an Asian bathroom voyeur website. I really need to stop punching random letter combinations into my browser here at work.

For every soul-crushing villain like General Ishii there has to be a brave and valiant hero to compensate the great karmic wheel. Someone who puts their life at risk in an effort to save another soul (or souls) from certain doom. These important humans deserve equal or greater representation on this site. For that reason I’m happy to shine today’s spotlight on Gracia Mendes Nasi.

That’s ‘Nasi’, with an ‘s’.

Gracia Nasi was born in Lisbon in 1510, in a time when being a Jew in Europe was a somewhat dicey affair. The Inquisition was making the rounds, doing their best to de-Jewify everyone because… well, I’m not quite certain of the logic here. Whatever logic tells the people of a given religion that it is imperative that everyone else think the exact same way they do, that’s the logic Gracia Nasi was running away from ever since she was born.

Gracia’s family was forced to live as ‘crypto-Jews’, which sounds like an awesome Hebraic spy agency, but actually means they had to practice their Judaism in secret. In public, Gracia had been baptized Beatriz de Luna Miquez, but once that front door was shut, her family broke out the secret stash of dreidels and gefilte fish and called Gracia by her proper name. They had to be careful – those loyal to the Inquisition were everywhere, and getting ratted out as practicing Jews would have been bad news.

In 1528, at the ripe age of 18, Gracia hooked up with Francisco Mendes Benveniste, a black pepper magnate. There weren’t nearly as many things to be a magnate of back in the 16th century, but Benveniste had a hand in peppering most of western Europe – he was doing just fine. Actually, the Benveniste clan was a well-known family, bursting with cash and nobility in every generation dating back to the 11th century. And like Gracia, Francisco had to keep his Jewish activities on the down-low. The two were wed in a lavish Catholic ceremony, with the official Jewish rites secretly performed afterward.

The pair spent a decade in wedded bliss before Francisco passed away. Along with Ana, her young daughter, Gracia scuttled over to Antwerp where Diogo, Francisco’s brother, was running another branch of the family business. Once she settled in, Gracia began working on an elaborate escape route – not for herself, but for the hundreds upon hundreds of Conversos – the local term for crypto-Jews – who were still trying to keep their faith hidden from the Inquisition.

The term ‘underground railroad’ hadn’t been coined yet – probably because there was no such thing as an overground railroad yet – but that’s basically what Gracia was starting up.

Gracia made use of her brother-in-law’s spice ships to swoop as many Conversos as possible from Lisbon to Antwerp. Once they arrived, Gracia and her loyal staff hooked the refugees up with some money, a cart, and directions through the Alps to Venice. Once they made that journey, they’d meet up with Gracia’s contact, who would then pack them aboard ships to Turkey and Greece, both of which were a part of the Ottoman Empire. Back then it was the Muslim Turks who ran the Empire, and they were sympathetic to the plight of anyone fleeing the convert-or-else Christians.

It wasn’t an easy journey, but making it to the end meant a kind of freedom that Europe simply didn’t offer during the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire.

Only five years after Gracia showed up and began sifting folks toward their liberation from tyranny, Diogo died. In his will, control of the massive Benveniste spice and silver empire was willed to Gracia and her daughter, Ana. Now she was no longer a wealthy widow but a powerful businesswoman.

Soon Gracia was hanging with kings, lords and popes. She wasted no time in securing protection for her fleeing Conversos with these powerful people. Her life was in danger, not only because she was flagrantly defying the predominant ultra-Christian trend of the time, but also because those nobles and royals were pushing her to marry Ana off to one of their kin. This would have been a great score for those aristocrats, and by custom it would have put a massive dent in Gracia’s fortune.

By 1544, only about a year after Diogo had died, things were getting a little too hot for Gracia to stay in Antwerp. She packed up her daughter and her stuff and fled to Venice, which at the time was its own nation. She ended up living in Istanbul, where Ana eventually married Don Joseph Nasi, her late husband’s nephew. I think that would mean Ana married her first cousin, but I suppose by 16th century standards that probably wasn’t too weird.

From her relative safety in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, Gracia kept up her plight. When the pope sentenced an Ancona group of Conversos to burn at the stake, Gracia made sure her company set up a trade embargo of that port. When more Conversos showed up to escape the Inquisition, Gracia built synagogues and yeshivas.

In 1558, Gracia finagled a deal with Sultan Suleiman The Magnificent (whom I think I saw perform a magic show in the Poconos once). She was granted control over the Tiberius region in Israel, along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The area was mostly desolate and falling apart, but Gracia wanted to build the place up and make it suitable for the refugees, should they need a place to rebuild their lives. This was a prototypical Zionist movement, founded solely on the premise that the Jews needed a place to hang their yarmulkes, and this was a politically safe part of the world in which to do it.

Gracia’s legacy drifted into obscurity throughout the first few centuries after her death in 1569. It wasn’t until recently that she became honored as a pioneer among women and among Jews. She has been honored in Turkey, Italy, Israel and America. A wine has been named after her, festivals have been thrown in her honor, and she even has her own Facebook page. That’s when you know you’ve made it.

Thousands upon thousands of people exist today solely because Gracia Mendes Nasi used her position to save lives, despite the danger it brought her.

Wow, it’s nice to have faith in humankind again.

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