Tag Archives: Turkey

Jew of the Week: Dona Gracia Mendes

Commemorative Coin of Dona Gracia Mendes

Commemorative Medal of Dona Gracia Mendes

Hanna ‘Gracia’ Nasi (1510-1569) was born in Lisbon, Portugal to a family of conversos – aka Marranos, Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity – and named Beatriz de Luna Miquez. She married Francisco Mendes Benveniste, a wealthy spice trader and banker. When she was only 28, Gracia’s husband passed away, leaving the business to her and his brother. Gracia thus joined her brother-in-law in Antwerp (then part of the Spanish Netherlands). From there, she organized an escape network for Jews to flee Spain and Portugal from the Inquisition, smuggling them in spice ships, providing them with money and documents to make their way to the Ottoman Empire where Jews were still welcome. This saved the lives of countless Jews, who nicknamed her ‘Our Angel’. Shortly after, her brother-in-law died as well, leaving Gracia alone at the helm of the massive Mendes financial empire, dealing with the likes of European kings, the Sultan of Turkey, and several Popes. At the time, she was possibly the most powerful woman in the world. After a series of political intrigues, which included an unjust imprisonment and several attempts to seize her wealth, Gracia settled in Istanbul, where she was now free to return to her religion. She built and financed dozens of synagogues and yeshivas across the Ottoman Empire. In 1558, the Sultan granted her a lease for the desolate town of Tiberias in Israel. Gracia began rebuilding the town, allowing Jewish refugees to settle there, with the vision of reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Israel. Many historians consider this the earliest modern Zionist attempt. Today, Donna Gracia has become a feminist icon, and is celebrated as a hero around the world. Both Philadelphia and New York City host a ‘Dona Gracia Day’, and the Turkish government has sponsored exhibits in her honour. There is a museum exploring her life in Tiberias, and the ‘La Senora’ synagogue of Istanbul, named after her, still stands to this day. Dona Gracia is the aunt of past Jew of the Week Joseph Nasi

 

 

Words of the Week

One of the greatest tragedies of intellectual human experience is that we study Bible stories when we are 55 in the same manner as we studied them when we were 5.
– Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky

Jew of the Week: Krystyna Skarbek

The Original ‘Bond Girl’

Secret Agent Krystyna Skarbek - the inspiration for James Bond's Vesper Lynd

Secret Agent Krystyna Skarbek – the inspiration for James Bond’s Vesper Lynd

Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek (1908-1952) was born in Poland to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother from a wealthy family. From a young age, Maria enjoyed horse-back riding, skiing, and extreme physical activities. At 22, her father died and her mother’s family wealth ran out. Skarbek got a job in a Fiat dealership but fell ill from the fumes. To regain her health, she returned to the slopes and spent the majority of her time skiing and hiking. With the outbreak of World War II, Skarbek fled to London and enlisted in the British Army. She found her way into the Secret Intelligence Service and was sent to Hungary for “espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage”. From there she re-entered Poland by hiking across the mountainous border. Skarbek first attempted to save her mother from the Nazis, but her mother refused to leave and was killed in a camp. Skarbek’s main work was to organize the transfer of vital intelligence reports out of Warsaw to the SIS. (One of these correctly revealed Germany’s planned invasion of the USSR, of critical importance to the Allied victory). She also assisted in smuggling weapons and exfiltrating key military personnel. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, Skarbek bit her own tongue until it bled, then pretended to have virulent tuberculosis and used the cover to escape her captivity. She made her way through the Balkans to Turkey, then to the SIS headquarters in Egypt. Upon arrival, she was suspected of being a counter-spy secretly working for the Germans! Thankfully, she cleared her name and returned to work. In 1944 she was posted in France under the name ‘Madame Pauline’. Here were some of her most infamous missions, including demolishing bridges and infiltrating a Nazi prison to save her commanding officer. After the war she was awarded with an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and France’s Croix de Guerre. However, she was dismissed from service with only a month’s salary and left alone in Cairo. She slowly rebuilt her life as Christine Granville. Sadly, in 1952 she was assassinated in a hotel room. Skarbek’s story inspired Vesper Lynd, the original ‘Bond Girl’ in Ian Fleming’s first 007 story Casino Royale. Many consider her Britain’s first female secret agent.

Words of the Week

God transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew makes physical things spiritual.
– Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov