Few other figures in Jewish history, particularly in the Middle Ages, played such an inspiring and beneficial part for their fellow Jews as did the noble Jewish lady Dona Gracia.
The legends that have woven around this extraordinary personality are numberless, but the historical facts prove that she was indeed an outstanding personality. Many thousands of conversos and other persecuted Jews called her by no other name than “Our Angel.”
Dona Gracia was born in Portugal in the early sixteenth century, to the noble family of Benveniste, which had come there from Spain after the flight from the Inquisition. Herself from a rich home, she had married the even richer Francisco Mendes-Nasi, member of one of the largest international trade and banking firms in the world. When her husband died while still young, Dona Gracia decided to leave Portugal together with her only child, Reyna, and several other relatives. For Portugal was then beginning to feel the mighty arms of the Inquisition, which made life unbearable for the conversos, the people who, like Dona Gracia, were living secretly as good Jews but had adopted the Catholic church for appearances’ sake, in the hope for a chance of escape.
Though Dona Gracia had to leave a considerable part of her huge wealth behind, she fled Portugal and settled in Antwerp, where her brother-in-law Diogo was the head of the branch of the Mendes-Nasi firm, which had connections with most European courts.
Many other conversos were then coming to the capital of Flanders to build new homes, but the powerful arms of the church began to be felt there too, and the conversos found they had to be even more careful there to appear as good Christians, instead of gaining the freedom they had sought when they fled Spain and Portugal.
Dona Gracia (or Beatriz de Luna, as she was known by her non-Jewish name) was a woman of extraordinary beauty, culture and wealth. She was highly respected by the noble and influential people of the highest rank of France, Flanders and the other countries with whom the Mendes establishments dealt. But, being a good Jewess, she hated every moment that she had to hide her true feelings, and she felt very uncomfortable in her disguise.
She began to make plans to leave Antwerp for a free country, especially after the death of her brother-in-law. Suspecting that she planned to leave with her entire wealth, Emperor Charles V tried to seize her fortune. But Dona Gracia succeeded in leaving Antwerp in 1549 with her daughter, her windowed sister, her niece and most of her wealth.
Together they traveled to Venice, from which port many vessels left for distant lands where Jews did not need to be afraid of living openly according to their religion. Like her nephew, the famous Don Joseph Nasi, who had already found a haven in Turkey and had become one of the mightiest men of Europe as a minister to the sultan, she planned to go to Constantinople. But she had to wait a few anxious years before she was able to live in freedom and again in possession of her huge wealth.
The king of France, a willing tool of the church, was very angry at her slipping away from Antwerp, and more so at her taking most of her wealth with her before he could confiscate it. At his instigation, and because of the careless remarks of her own relative, the governors of Venice put her and her family in prison, and confiscated her huge wealth, before she could sail for Turkey.
But then Don Joseph Nasi used his influence with the Turkish sultan, who was only too glad for an excuse to start trouble with the competing Venetian traders. His government sent a special envoy to Venice with the request to release the converso woman and her wealth. But it took two years of negotiations and threats of actual war until this release was effected. Dona Gracia was released and, with her daughter, settled temporarily in Ferrara, where they openly returned to their Jewish religion.
By 1552, Dona Gracia settled in Constantinople, where she became the center of worldwide help to conversos and Jews in suffering. Her wealth was used not only for business, but to buy the favors of princes, opening many doors to the persecuted. She fostered Jewish culture, and poets wrote at great length in praise of her many achievements as a patron and helper of Jewry in those dark days. She built synagogues, established yeshivot and libraries, and supported scholars and students of the Torah. She helped to resettle hundreds of conversos, to enable them to return to their Jewish faith.