About four hundred years ago, there lived a heroic Jewish woman by the name of Maria Nunez. Her family was among the best Jewish families in Spain who, during the terroristic reign of the terrible Inquisition, had been forced to accept the Catholic faith. However, like many other Jews of that period in Spain, they lived secretly as Jews, and only appeared outwardly as Christians. These Jews, as you may know, were called “conversos.”

The conversos taught their children secretly all they could about Judaism, and hoped they would escape as soon as possible and go to a country where they would be allowed to live freely as Jews. Among the Jews who escaped into Portugal were the parents of Maria Nunez, and it was in Portugal that she was born and given that un-Jewish-sounding name.

But the long, fearful arm of the Inquisition finally reached into Portugal too, and so Maria, her brother Manuel and her uncle Miguel Lopez decided they would risk their lives in a break for freedom. In those days Holland was the country of refuge for the persecuted, and so many conversos sought a haven of refuge there.

Travel in those days was no simple matter, nor was it safe. The boat on which Maria, her brother and uncle sailed was a shabby affair, whose captain meant to take every advantage of the unfortunate plight of the conversos. Apart from charging them a fantastically high price, he treated them worse than cattle. And, as if this situation were not bad enough, their boat was captured by an English pirate ship whose captain took them to England. But, as Jews were not admitted into England at that time, they were taken prisoner and very roughly treated.

Poor Maria Nunez, her brother and uncle, seemed doomed to spend the rest of their lives as prisoners, with never a hope of reaching Holland and freedom: freedom to live as Jews, for which they had prayed so long and hard, and risked so much.

But Maria Nunez, as we have already told you, was possessed of much personal charm and courage, of which she seemed hardly aware. And it was this gift of G‑d which helped her in their present dilemma. Even on the boat Maria had turned down all sorts of tempting offers which would have helped her personally, but that was not what she was seeking. And so now, when the captain of the pirate ship saw her, he too was completely charmed by her. He offered her marriage, which would mean freedom for her and her comrades in misfortune. But this she refused, as all she longed for was to reach a place where she could live freely and remain loyal to Judaism.

The fame of Maria’s beauty and wisdom reached the royal court in London, and the reigning queen, Queen Elizabeth, sent for her. She was so impressed with Maria that she took the lovely girl with her when she went out riding in her royal carriage.

Offers of marriage poured in from the highest nobility, but all that Maria begged was the favor of being allowed to leave England and sail to Holland. This permission was finally granted, and so Maria, her brother and uncle eventually arrived at their destination, the land of their hopes and dreams. There, Maria married her cousin Francisco Nunez Pereira. They openly returned to their beloved Jewish faith, and were happy to assume their Jewish name of Abendana.

Here they lived in peace and contentment, happy in the knowledge that they could serve G‑d freely as Jews. And only those unfortunate Jews who have lived through oppression, and been forbidden to practice Judaism, can realize and appreciate the true blessing of this “freedom of religion.”

For many centuries the descendants of the wonderfully heroic and lovely Maria belonged to the most cultured and pious members of the Portuguese Jewish community in Holland, even down to this day.