Chanukah in the shadow of the inquisition
The House of Modiglia, importers of silks, was one of the famous business establishments in Seville, Spain. The two brothers Yaakov and Reuven del Modiglia had inherited it from their father, who received a special scroll from the king of Spain -praising him for his contribution to the development of overseas trade. Their widowed mother Donna Rachela del Modiglia won fame for her charitableness and support of many welfare institutions in Seville. She had even received a golden medallion from the king for her services to the country during the war against the Moors. The del Modiglias were respected and admired by many, and envied and hated by others, especially by less successful non-Jewish merchants, and by certain church leaders.
There was much rejoicing in the house of the Modiglias when the wife of Yaakov gave birth to twins, and when the following year a child was born also to Reuven del Modiglia. They were all girls, and quite adorable. They were all born on Chanuka.
For their first birthdays their grandmother Donna Rachela presented them each with a silver brooch in the form of a Chanuka lamp, with a tiny stone of red ruby shaped like a flame inlaid atop each candlestick. Donna Rachela had ordered these beautiful little brooches from a silversmith in Burgos, and the design was entirely hers. And while she pinned these beautiful little brooches on her grandchildren's pretty dresses, she had a queer foreboding that difficult times lay ahead for her dear little granddaughters.
Indeed, things were getting bad for the Jews of Spain. Fanatical monks went around preaching hatred of the Jews, and the aroused mobs often attacked the Jews, destroyed their property and killed and robbed. In desperation, some rich Jews pretended to accept the Christian faith, so as not to be molested. These were the unfortunate Marranos, whose fate was to become even worse than that of the faithful Jews, for the church suspected their loyalty, and they were despised as cowards by their christian neighbors, and hated for their riches and important positions in the government.
When King Ferdinand and his queen, the cruel Isabella, began their reign, the position of the Jews became worse. The Inquisition, headed by the fanatical, cruel and ruthless Torquemada, threw terror into the hearts of the Marranos, and on the Jews who helped them. The victims were arrested and tortured to force them to make confessions, and then they were burned alive in the public square, and their possessions were taken over by the Church and the Crown.
It was during those terrible days that the three Modiglia girls grew up and reached their fourth and fifth birthdays on that fateful Chanuka.
At the Chanuka party, which was also the birthday party of the girls, many friends were gathered in the palatial home of the Modiglias, on a beautiful hill overlooking the Guadalquivir River. The Chanuka candles were lit, and each of the girls clutched at her brooch, which was a miniature replica of the beautiful Chanuka lamp that was shining brightly.
The grandmother, Donna Rachela, thought that the girls were now old enough to be told the story of Chanuka, and especially why they had each received their first birthday gifts in the form of a tiny Chanuka lamp.
"Dear Soroh and Rivka," she turned to the twins, the daughters of her older son Yaakov, "and dear Leah," she turned to the youngest, the only child of her son Reuven. "Do you know why I gave you each those tiny Chanuka lamps for your first birthdays?"
"Because we were born on Chanuka!" all three girls chimed in.
"Yes, that is true. But this is only one reason. The other reason is that you should always remember the lesson of Chanuka. Many years ago, when we Jews still lived in our own lovely country, in Eretz Yisroel, a time came which was very difficult for us Jews. For there arose a wicked king, Antiochus was his name, who wanted to force the Jews to give up being Jews, and to become idol worshippers like himself. He sent armies from the nearby country of Syria, where he was king, to force the Jews to obey his orders. And his orders were that the Jews should no longer keep the holy Shabbos, and the holy festivals; that the Jewish children should no longer learn the Torah, or observe the Mitzvos. But the Jews were brave; they loved G-d and the Torah more than their life, and they were ready to die rather than obey the cruel and mad king. Bravest of all were the little children..."
Donna Rachela then went on to tell them the story of Channa and her seven sons, and when she concluded the story, she said to them: "Could you be as brave as those dear little children?"
"Yes, grandma, we would do exactly the same thing," they all replied.
"I hope you will never have to do it," Donna Rachel said, with a heavy heart.
A gloomy silence fell in the large room. Then Reuven broke the silence. "Let us not be so sad tonight. After all, it is Chanuka. Let us sing and be happy and have faith. G-d will not forsake us."
There was a knock at the door, and the maid announced: "Senor Diego de Susan!"
Reuven and Yaakov rose to greet the guest.
"Good Chanuka!" Diego said, as he came in. "Permit me to light the Chanuka lights."
"Certainly, Diego," Reuven answered. He refilled the lamp with pure olive oil, and Diego lit the candles with tears in his eyes, reciting the blessings from the prayer book. Silently he watched the Chanuka lights for a few minutes, then turned to Reuven and Yaakov. "I must talk to you, privately." The three of them withdrew to the library.
"Grandma," Soroh asked, when they were left alone, "why did Senor Diego come here to light the Chanuka lights? Couldn't he light them in his home? And why did he cry?"
"When you are a little older, I will tell you, dear. But now you must forget that Senor Diego had lit the candles here. You must not tell it to anybody. Can you keep a secret?"
"Sure, grandma," Soroh replied knowingly. "Senor Diego is a Marrano; and he is unhappy, isn't he?"
"Hush, child, you must say no more about it. Remember, it's a secret."
In the library, the three men talked in subdued voices. Diego was the head of a wealthy group of Marranos, and he came to the Modiglia brothers for help. They had decided to flee the country. They had their own agents in the Inquisition, and they had learned that Torquemada was gathering evidence against them, and against their Jewish friends who helped them to keep the Jewish laws and customs.
"Our lives are in danger, " Diego said, "and I am sorry to say, yours too. I have reliable information that it is a matter of days, perhaps hours, before Torquemada will strike us all down. I have also found out that the new maid is a spy for the Inquisition. My suggestion is that we should escape, all of us, on one of your ships. Will you help us? Will you also save yourselves?"
"Diego, you can have any of our ships, and we will be glad to help you and all the others. As for ourselves, we have never done anything important without first consulting our dear mother. We'll let you know tomorrow. "
"Tomorrow may be too late. You must decide at once. Why not call in Donna Rachela now?"
Reuven got up to ring for the maid, but then thought better of it, and went to call his mother. As he opened the door, he came face to face with the dreaded Thomas de Torquemada. Behind him were two soldiers of the Inquisition.
"The house is surrounded," Torquemada said triumphantly. "All escape is cut off, and resistance would be foolish. All three of you are under arrest!" Then he added mockingly, "Please forgive me for coming in unannounced. We cannot stand on ceremonies with traitors. As for your mother and children, they shall remain under house arrest for the time being. Let us go, Senors. "
After a sleepless night, which seemed endless, Donna Rachela finally decided it was light enough to get up and dress. She put on her finest garments, and adorned herself with the golden medallion, which she had received from King Ferdinand for her services to Spain in the war against the Moors, which had hitherto opened for her the doors of the royal court.
The infamous Queen Isabella, who had only contempt and hatred for Jews in general, had made an exception in the case of Donna Rachela, whom she reluctantly admired as a wise and wealthy lady, from whose treasure chests came the most precious silks and fineries for the royal family.
Thus, it would seem. Donna Rachela would be able to use her influence to nullify whatever scheme had been plotted against her sons by the inquisitors. But this time she was wrong. Though she was admitted without difficulty to the queen's inner chamber, it was not the queen but the chief inquisitor himself. Thomas de Torquemada, who came out to the troubled Jewess.
For a moment the inquisitor was silent as he eyed the noble and majestic Donna Rachela, whom he could not help admiring for her dignity and air of nobility. Then he shook himself impatiently, snapping at her: "What do you want here. Jewess?"
Donna Rachela ignored his insulting tone and was about to say something, when Queen Isabella stepped out of her chamber.
"Why, Donna Rachela del Modiglia..." she began in surprise. Then she looked at Torquemada, noted his contemptuous attitude, and said no more.
"Surely the queen can have nothing to say to this member of a faithless people!" burst out the inquisitor. "Unless she has come to try and convince you that there is justification for the plot or her two sons and their friends against the church and its loyal servants."
Isabella's face grew hard and her eyes glinted cruelly as she shouted in a shrill voice: "Take her away! Remove her before I lose my patience!"
Donna Rachela looked incredulously at Isabella who had changed so completely towards her. The queen ignored the old Jewess, gave a nod of farewell to Torquemada and went back into her private chamber.
Torquemada said nothing more as Donna Rachela slowly took off the gold medallion from around her neck put it down on a side table, and proudly walked away.
As soon as she returned home she asked her most trusted servants to pack a few belongings together. Gone were her illusions about having influence with the royal court. Her main concern, now was to arrange that her daughters-in-law and her grandchildren be taken to a safe place.
But less than a half-hour after her return home some soldiers arrived led by an officer and agent of King Ferdinand.
"In the name of the king, your whole family is under house arrest." declared the agent. "No one is to come or go; all your possessions are hereby declared to be the property of the Crown until the holy Tribunal will decide the fate of your two sons."
But the Inquisition had not reckoned with the old and faithful servant Duenna. She had quickly taken in the whole situation. With but a secret glance of assurance at Donna Rachela, she quietly and unobtrusively slipped out of the room where the messengers of the Inquisitor had gathered before Donna Rachela. They had taken up residence at the house, so that they could keep everyone in it under their keen observation. Everyone had to obey their orders, but try as they would, they could not seem to make themselves understood to the old servant, Duenna. Either she was deaf, or just plain stupid. They could not understand why the Modiglias kept her in the house. But that was the old lady's worry, not theirs. They decided that she was harmless, anyway, and paid little attention to her or to her actions.
This was exactly what Duenna intended. Thus, she made a practice of going out each morning, and taking the little girls with her. The first time the soldiers tried to stop her for questioning, she angrily pushed them away, saying she had to take the poor little things for some fresh air and exercise. The soldiers just shrugged and let her pass.
Somehow Duenna managed to see Donna Rachela each night, and so they planned their next moves together. Donna Rachela had a nephew in Constantinople, and she directed Duenna to get her letter sent to him. She instructed her nephew to divert all their ships to other ports, out of the reach of the long arms of the Inquisition.
Donna Rachela knew that Duenna would escape with the children to safety, but she herself intended to stay behind to see if there was anything she could do to help her imprisoned sons.
She knew so well that many of those who were involved with Diego Susan had already died in the auto-de-fes and she feared that a similar fate awaited her sons.
One day, as Donna Rachela was sitting in her living room with her daughters-in-law, the door burst open and an officer shouted: "Your maid has disappeared with the children! What have you to say to that?"
Donna Rachela and her daughters-in-law put on a great show of being alarmed and distressed, so much so, that the officer felt convinced that they had no part in the plot. But this was actually the signal for the mothers of the girls to make their own escape through the secret passage leading from the cellar along underground tunnels which led out to the Guadalquiver River. There, a boat was ready to receive them and make a quick getaway. As soon as this second escape was discovered, Donna Rachela was again confronted by the officer and his soldiers, accusing her of being an accomplice. She tried to make them believe that her daughters-in-law must have run away in order to search for their little daughters, but this time they were not so easily convinced.
The officer reported what had taken place to the Chief Inquisitor, who immediately sent out a number of his agents to the various ports to watch for Duenna and the little girls, and maybe their mothers, trying to leave the country by ship.
Meanwhile, Duenna, knowing that it would not yet be safe to try and reach any port, had taken the little girls to her brother who had a smithy in a forest above the hills. Here, where she felt no one would dream of looking for the Modiglia children, they all took temporary refuge, until the hue and cry for them had died down.
Duenna made dresses for the little girls out of old clothes. She let them play with the coal and the dirt, so that even had any of the inquisitors seen them, they would never have recognized them to be the same children who had been born and brought up in nobility.
Then, after a few days of waiting, Duenna's brother made a trip in his old ox-cart to the port. He filled it with sacks of coal and hid a little girl in the cart. When this trip passed successfully, and the child was left with the trusted captain of the boat, he repeated the trip the next day, too, leaving the second girl with the captain. The boat was all set to leave the following night, but waited in vain for the third little girl. The Inquisitor's spies had become suspicious when they saw the old smith making repeated trips to the port. Thus, as he was traveling along the third evening, he was stopped by the Inquisitor's officers, his ox-cart was searched thoroughly, and poor little Leah, the darling little daughter of Reuven del Modiglia, was dragged out, trembling with fright.
That night, as Reuven sat in his dismal cell in the cellars of the Inquisition, his heart heavy and full of despair, the door suddenly opened and a warden entered.
"Well, do you still refuse to give up your religion, you stubborn Jew?" he sneered at him.
"I will never give up my Judaism nor my faith in G-d," Reuven declared with all the strength in him.
"Isn't it enough for you that your brother Yaakov has been put to death for this same obstinacy? Your mother, too, has chosen to share the same fate. The king and queen have decided, however, to give you this last chance to save yourself and your wealth, but only on condition that you become a Christian."
"No! Never!" shouted Reuven del Modiglia. "How stupid you all are to think that a Jew who would not be loyal to his own faith would make a loyal Christian!"
"Stupid, are we? Then here is someone who will make you change your tune," retorted the warden, a wicked grin on his face. Saying this, he opened the door of the cell and in rushed Reuven's little daughter. "I will allow you ten minutes together," he said, and went out. "Leah, my darling child!" called out Reuven, as she flung herself into his arms.
"What are you doing here?" He looked bewildered. His happiness at seeing his beloved daughter was mixed with a terrible fear for her safety.
"My dear father, I have come to plead with you that you agree to what they ask of you. They have promised to be kind to me if I will enter a convent. But if you will take their religion they say they will allow us both to go home and live together in peace. Dear, dear father, do this for my sake. I don't want to die!"
"There are worse things than death, dear daughter. Dishonor and disloyalty make life worthless to an honest person. So thought your dear Uncle Yaakov and your brave grandmother. Can we be less brave than they, and less loyal to our religion?"
For a while father and daughter talked together. Leah now knew what she had to do. She would be as brave as her father.
"I hear footsteps, father. Have no fear about me," little Leah said, smiling through her tears. The door opened slowly, a hand was thrust inside, and, to their unbelieving ears came the voice of their dear Duenna. "Quick, dear friends. There's not a moment to be lost. Here's the key to the back door at the end of the corridor to the right. An officer is standing outside the door there, but he's your friend: follow his instructions. I shall join you when safe. Good-bye and may G-d keep you safe."
They were too bewildered to think. They knew, however, that here was a heaven-sent salvation. They hurried out on tiptoe and fled down the corridor to the outside, and freedom.
It was only months later that Duenna was able to rejoin them and relate to them the almost unbelievable story of how she had managed to get a job as cleaner in the cellars of the Inquisition and had managed to "borrow" the key which opened the door to their freedom, so that they made their way to their friend, the captain of the boat, who took them to their haven of refuge in Constantinople.
(Reprinted with permission, Teacher's Guide, No. 9, Kehot)