Light that Seeps Through Evil

May 16, 2017

by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer

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Gracia (Hannah) Nasi and Hannah Senesh lived their lives during two of the darkest periods in history for European Jewry, the Inquisition and the Holocaust, when rampant persecution ran amok and threatened the very existence of the Jewish people. Though separated by centuries, our heroines’ lives were united by more than just their first names—both women displayed an uncommon courage and gritty resolve to rescue their people at any cost.

Dona Gracia Nasi was born Beatrice de Luna in 1510 into a Portuguese Jewish family. In 1497, the family was forcibly made to convert to Catholicism. The long arm of the Spanish Inquisition had penetrated Portugal and many Jewish families were now conversos—outwardly Christian but covertly still practicing their Jewish faith. The newborn Beatrice was secretly given the Hebrew name Hannah (Hannah means grace, and Gracia is the Portuguese equivalent).

By all accounts, Gracia lived a life of intrigue and high drama, growing up to be an energetic, compassionate woman with a shrewd eye for business. Compassion and shrewdness proved to be key weapons in her struggle against injustice.

The Wealthiest Woman in Europe

When she was eighteen, Gracia married Francisco Mendes, a wealthy converso, who had a lucrative trade in spices and silver. The year 1538 proved to be one of turmoil for the young woman when Francisco died and Gracia found herself an extremely wealthy young widow, managing half her husband’s fortune and business interests while the other half was directed by her brother-in-law, Diogo. A few years later, Diogo also died, leaving the rest of Franciso’s fortune to Gracia. She was now one of the wealthiest Jewish women in Europe and found herself associating with kings, popes and sultans.

Despite her wealth and extensive business connections, Gracia’s family still feared discovery. The Portuguese Inquisition had renewed their pursuit of conversos and the family was forced again to flee, moving to Venice and then northern Italy where Judaism was looked upon more favorably.

The Heart of Her People

Within her haven, Gracia went to work, establishing a network of escape routes through Europe for hundreds of Jews trying to flee Portugal, using bribes and commercial deals to clear the way. Poet Samuel Usque called her “the heart of her people.” Those she helped simply called her “La Dona.”

Gracia employed her own trading ships as an initial means of escape for Portuguese Jews. They were transported from Lisbon to Antwerp and over the Alps to Venice. From there, the Ottoman Empire resettled the escapees in Turkey and Greece, the Turkish Muslims surprisingly sympathetic to the Jewish plight.

A Sanctuary in Israel

Eventually, Gracia also moved to Turkey. She sponsored the construction of synagogues and Jewish schools all over the Ottoman Empire, becoming one of the largest patrons in the Diaspora. At one point, she spearheaded a Jewish resistance to Ancona, a seaport in Italy, after the city arrested its Jewish citizens. Gracia sent all her trade ships to another port in boycott, but her intervention proved futile and 24 Jews were burned at the stake, including her own shipping agent.

Gracia realized there was no safe place for Jews anywhere in Europe, and she would have to establish a sanctuary in the Jewish homeland, planting the first seeds of Zionism into its soil. She chose the city of Tiberias along the Sea of Galilee, and leased large swathes of land from the Turks. The resettled Jewish community flourished.

Dona Gracia Nasi died before she could live in the mansion built for her in Tiberias, but the legacy of a lifetime dedicated to the survival of her people endured.

Poet, Patriot, Paratrooper

Four hundred years after Dona Gracia lived, another heroine emerged, this time under the shadows of the Holocaust. Her name was Hannah Senesh.

Hannah was born into a middle-class Jewish Hungarian family in 1921. As a schoolgirl, she experienced the growing specter of anti-Semitism. Despite her mother’s protests, Hannah moved to British Mandated Palestine in 1939 and learned how to farm. Her passion was writing and poetry, but she knew the land urgently needed builders, not scholars.

One day, shocking news came from Eastern Europe that people were being systematically slaughtered. Hannah wrote, “I heard a voice saying, ‘Whom shall I send?’ and I answered, ‘Send me.’” Just a few days after speaking those words, the Haganah (Jewish underground defense force) came to the kibbutz where Hannah lived. Their mission was to recruit former Hungarian citizens to parachute into Hungary and attempt a rescue mission of the remaining Jews. Hannah volunteered immediately. She wrote, “In my heart, there are two great loves. One love is my nation and my people. And my second love is my mother.” Hannah’s mother was still trapped in Budapest.

Just as the paratroopers were preparing to cross from Yugoslavia into Hungary, the Germans invaded and the border was closed. Hannah insisted that the mission proceed and she and three male comrades slipped across into Hungary. Tragically, they were arrested almost immediately. Hannah was tortured but refused to divulge any information. She was tried and convicted of treason and later executed by firing squad.

Courage and Resistance

In 1950, her remains were repatriated to the new State of Israel and buried at the Mt. Herzl cemetery. Before her death, she wrote in her diary, “Despite everything…there is nothing on earth so evil that a ray of light can’t seep through.” Like Dona Gracia Nasi before her, Hannah Senesh stood as a beacon of courage and resistance for the Jewish people, becoming that ray of light she hoped would seep through the evil of her time.

Photo Credit: Patty Nelson

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