Jewish History


History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.
Napoleon Bonaparte
(1769 - 1821)

Documents from the Jewish history

From the speeches of Elazar Ben- Yair, last Sicarii commander of Masada, persuading his people to kill one another.
Source: Josephus Flavius. (April 15, 73 C.E.Common Era )

"Brave and loyal followers!
Long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone other than God ... The time has now come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. At such a time we must not disgrace ourselves. Hitherto we have never submitted to slavery ... We must not choose slavery now ... For we were the first to revolt, and shall be the last to break off the struggle. And I think it is God who has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free man ... In our case it is evident that day-break will end our resistance, but we are free to choose an honorable death with our loved ones. This our enemies cannot prevent, however earnestly they may pray to take us alive; nor can we defeat them in battle.
   Let our wives die unabused, our children without knowledge of slavery. After that let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious winding-sheet. But first, let our possessions and the whole fortress go up in flames. It will be a bitter blow to the Romans, that I know, to find our persons beyond their reach and nothing left for them to loot. One thing only let us spare-our store of food: it will bear witness when we are dead to the fact that we perished, not through want but because ... we chose death rather than slavery.
   If only we had all died before seeing the Sacred City utterly destroyed by enemy hands, the Holy Sanctuary so impiously uprooted! But since an honorable ambition deluded us into thinking that perhaps we should succeed in avenging her of her enemies, and now all hope has fled, abandoning us to our fate, let us at once choose death with honor and do the kindest thing we can for ourselves, our wives, and our children, while it is still possible to show ourselves any kindness. After all, we were born to die, we and those we brought into the world: this even the luckiest must face.
   But outrage, slavery, and the sight of our wives led away to shame with our children -these are not evils to which man is subject by the laws of nature: men undergo them through their own cowardice if they have a chance to forestall them by death and will not take it. Weare very proud of our courage, so we revolted from Rome. Now in the final stages they have offered to spare our lives and we have turned the offer down. Is anyone too blind to see how furious they will be if they take us alive? Pity the young whose bodies are strong enough to survive prolonged torture; pity the not-so-young whose old frames would break under such ill-usage. A man will see his wife violently carried off; he will hear the voice of his child crying "Daddy!" when his own hands are fettered. Come! While our hands are free and can hold a sword, let them do a noble service! Let us die unenslaved by our enemies, and leave this world as free men in company with our wives and children."

From History of the Jews, vol.III; from the later Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
Dubnov, S. M., (1860-1941)

	First Jewish Colonies in America
Historians have repeatedly observed the portentous coincidence of
two events: the expulsion of Jews from Spain and the discovery of
America. Columbus himself recorded in his memoirs, "After the
Spanish monarchs [Ferdinand and Isabella] ordered the expulsion of
the Jews from the entire kingdom-in the same month [April, 1492]
they commissioned me to undertake the journey to India."(see*). Within
several months on August 2-all the Jews, with the exception of the
Marranos, left Spain; and one day later-on August 3-Columbus
and his comrades set out on three ships on a journey that led them to
the discovery of America. The New World opened up at the moment
when a part of the Old World had closed for Jews. Providence pre-
pared new regions for the growing dispersion.
The Marranos who remained in Spain under the dominion of the
Inquisition seemed to have had a presentiment that many of them
would have to follow the route which Columbus paved, and they sup-
ported his radical enterprise. When difficulty arose in finding the assets
to equip such an expedition, the Marrano Luis de Santangel, the
supervisor of the royal taxes, or "treasurer" of Aragon, came to the aid
of the heroic traveler. He pointed out to Queen Isabella and the king
the great revenue to be derived if a sea route to the mysterious
"Western India," as America was called prior to its discovery, were
found. Fascinated by this plan, Isabella was willing to pawn her jewels
to create the necessary funds for the expedition--since the royal treas-
ury was insufficient. For his part, the wealthy Santangel offered the
royal pair a loan of 17,000 ducats free of interest, which made it
possible for the expedition to set out. The crew included several Mar-
ranos: the interpreter Louis de Torres, versed in Oriental languages;
the ship's doctor, Bernal, who had been persecuted by the Spanish
Inquisition, and others. Torres was to become the first European to
settle in the New World. When Columbus and the members of his
expedition returned to Spain, Torres remained on the island of Cuba,
where he learned the art of cultivating tobacco--a skill later intra-
duced in Europe. Santangel received from Columbus the first letter,
when the expedition returned to Spain via the Azores Islands. The .
second expedition of Columbus (1493) was equipped through the funds
which the royal pair had obtained from the sale of the property con-
fiscated from the exiled Jews.
	Santangel and his kinsman Gabriel Sanjes, as well as a royal tax-
collector, supported Columbus' further enterprises. For his services
Santangel was later granted by the king many privileges, one of which
he cherished especially: release from the surveillance ()f the Inqui-
sition. Sanjes was granted the privilege of expO,rting products to
America, whereas other Marranos who were under suspicion were
barred from emigrating and transporting commodities to the new
countries, which were immediately drawn into the net of the Catholic
Church. Since the Marranos--in spite of the official obstacles--flocked
en masse to the "New Spain," a law was passed in 1511 to the effect
that any Marranos whose relatives had ever been condemned by the
Inquisition for Judaizing were not to be admitted there. Soon the In-
quisition itself followed the Marranos to America.

	Jews also rendered service to Portugal, when Vasco da Gama was
on the verge of discovering the sea route to India around South Africa.
Abraham Zacuto, the famous astronomer and chronicler of Lisbon,
helped the great seafarer during his preparations for the expedition
with his counsel, and his instruments that could determine the route
according to the stars. In 1497, on the eve of the expulsion of the Jews
from Portugal, Vasco da Gama--commissioned by King Emanuel-
sailed with his flotilla to establish direct trade with India; and in that
expedition, he was greatly assisted by a European Jew, who served as
a captain for one of the Indian rulers. Following the custom of his
homeland, Vasco da Gama forced that Jew to convert to Christianity
and nickname him Gaspar de Gama. Gaspar de Gama later accom-
panied an expedition to South America, under  the leadership of
Cabral (1502), which led to the conquest of Brazil by the Portugese.
Later, the reward for the Jews who settled in the Portugise colonies,
was the same as in the Spanish: the Inquisition kept a vigiland eye on

the Marranos, and dragged to the auto-da-fe each one accused of ob-
serving Judaism.
	The Spanish colonies, as is well-known, were concentrated in Cen-
tral America during that epoch. Surmounting all obstacles to emigra-
tion, many Marranos proceeded there: some merely for trade, others
in hope of finding peace from the persecutions of the Inquisition. That
hope did not fulfill itself. During the first decades after the settling of
America, the local bishops were beginning to acquire from the Spanish
Ikings the title of Inquisitor, and the authority to lead a fight against
the heretics. Thus, the bishops of Cuba and Puerto Rico were ap-
pointed Inquisitors (1516-1520). Under Charles V, the Inquisition was
introduced in Mexico. An auto-da-fe took place there in 1539; among
those condemned to public repentance was a group of Judaizing Mar-
	In the decades that followed, during the time of the Protestant Re-
formation, emigrant Lutherans and Calvinists were the chief victims
of the Inquisition. Under Philip II, it was the Marranos who here and
there had begun to profess their true religion almost openly who were
assailed. In 1571, a genuine Inquisition tribunal was established with
the object of "clearing the country that was defiled by Jews and here-
tics, primarily from the Portugese nation."
	At the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries, the
trial of the Karvajal family stirred a great commotion. Louis Karvajal,
a Portugese Marrano, was considered such a good Catholic that he
I was appointed governor of the Mexican district of Novo-Leon. He pro-
ceeded diligently to settle the new region- with emigrants, among them
numerous Judaizing Marranos. Soon a large community developed, the
rabbi of which was the husband of the governor's sister, Francesca.
When the Inquisition became aware of the situation, and set out to
make arrests, many members of the community fled. Interrogated
under torture, the Karvajal family confessed and feigned penitence.
They performed the ceremony of public penitence on the site of the
auto-da-fe, where the unrepentant were burned alive-and they were
recognized as "reconciled to the Church" (1593). But within a few
years the irreconcilability of the penitents became known. Jailed once
more, Francesca and her daughters and kin endured heroically the in-
human tortures; her young nephew, nicknamed the "Holy Joseph"
(Jose Lumbroso) mused that King Solomon had appeared in a dream,
and let him drink a wonderful beverage that rendered him insensitive
to torture. As a result, a number of autos-da-fe took place in the city
of Mexico, in which the entire Karvajal family-and others who failed
to escape-perished (1596-1602). The clergy and the royal official
profited considerably from this event: they took the enormous wealth
of those burned at the stake and of the prisoners, who included quite a
few landowners, planters, and proprietors of mines. Similar mass trials
were conducted in Mexico a half-century later (1646-1659).
      The Inquisition was most energetic in Peru, the leading Spanish
colony in South America. Under Philips II, III and IV, when throngs
of Marranos flocked to the colonies from the united Spain and Portu-
gal, the Inquisition tribunal in Lima, the capital of Peru, reaped a rich
harvest. A staggering family drama came to light in one of the
numerous trials of that time. The young physician Francisco da Silva,
who was born in Peru to a Marrano family that strictly observed
Catholic rituals, became inclined toward the religion of his ancestors,
after he had delved into the study of the Bible. For some time he con-
cealed his heresy from his wife, mother, and two sisters. But finally he
could not bear it any longer and confided his secret to his beloved
sister Isabella, and tried to persuade her to convert to Judaism also.
But Isabella, a strict Catholic, not only remained adamant against her
brother, but ransacked her brains for a way to redeem his soul, and a
way to redeem herself of the sin of remaining silent during her
brother's confession of apostasy. After a considerable spiritual struggle,
she revealed the secret of her brother to the priests. At the end of 1621,
Francisco da Silva was arrested, and he spent seventeen years in
prison. Christian clergymen visited him to induce him to renounce the
"devil's religion," but he insisted on dying a Jew. During the long
years of his imprisonment, he wrote in Spanish and Latin a commen-
tary to the Bible and tractates in which were directions for Judaizing,
and how to live in the true faith. Silva's trial dragged on for many
years, because in connection with this case the Inquisition detected a
substantial group of Marranos who gathered for religious discussions
in Lima, at the home of a friend, a certain Perez, who was regarded
as a model Catholic. Together with many members of this group, Silva
was burned at the stake in Lima on January 23, 1639. The following
year, Portugal separated from Spain and became an independent state,

but r~mained loyal to the precepts of the Inquisition in its American 
  The large Portugese colony of Brazil had considerable Jewish settle- 
ments by the 16th century, because the government of Lisbon often
exiled there the Judaizing as well as the criminals. The exiles could be 
grateful for their punishment: in the new localities they could profess
their faith more freely. Here they cultivated sugar cane, and the best 
sugar plantations in Brazil belonged to Jews. At the beginning of the
17th century, they were subjugated to the persecutions of the Inqui- 
sition; and the.refore, when the Dutch w~ged wa: .against the Portu-
gese over BrazIl, the local Marranos decided to Jom the Dutch, who
championed tolerance. The administration of the West India Com-
pany in Amsterdam, which was. financing the military campaign of 
the Dutch, declared openly that It depended on the cooperation of the
Jews living there. The Dutch army invading Brazil in 1624 included
Jewish volunteers from Europe. Gradually, with the help of the indi-
genous inhabitants who were dissatisfied with the Portugese, the entire
country was conquered. Under the dominion of Holland, the Jewish
settlements in Brazil flourished. Jewish communities were established
in Rio de Janeiro and in other cities; the largest community, with
synagogues, was being organized at that time in Recife or Pernam-
buco. In 1642 a great party of Jewish emigrants set out from Holland,
headed by the aforementioned khakham of Amsterdam, Isaac Aboab
de Fonseca and the scholarly Moses Raphael de Agiliar-the reader of
the Torah and cantor in the synagogue. The Dutch-ruled Brazil was
joyful. The Jews developed the export of the local products, and the
country anticipated a prosperous future.
   But the period of the Dutch dominion was short-lived. In 1645, the
Portugese once again began to invade Brazil. The war lasted nine
years. The Jews supported the Dutch with money and volunteers.
During the siege of Recife by the Portuges"!' (1646), Rabbi Aboab
ardently called upon his flock to defend the city. The besieged died of
hunger and sickness; and the fighters from the sword. Penitential
prayers were recited in the synagogue; Aboab composed a special
prayer for the occasion. The siege was removed, but the war went on
until 1654, when Brazil was returned to the Portugese. At the con-
clusion of a peace treaty, the Dutch stipulated an amnesty for the
civilians, including the Jews. But as soon as Portugese dominion was
restored, the governor ordered the Jews to leave Brazil. The exiles were
granted sixteen ships in which to sail. Aboab and Agiliar, the leaders
of the Amsterdam group, along with many of its members, returned to
Holland. The rest of the exiles dispersed over various colonies of South
and North America, avoiding the Spanish and Portugese countries.
Some settled in Dutch Guiana, or in the colonies of North America.
According to legend, a part of the Brazilian exiles arrived in the city
of New Amsterdam; and in that way they laid the foundation for the
community that within two and a half centuries would become the
world's largest.
*The question-which recently came to light-whether Columbus of Genoa
was a descendant of the Italian-Jewish family Colon, has not been solved to
this day.

  • Nathan Hannover, a Polish rabbi, describes what he saw happen on June 10, 1648 in town of Nemirov in Podolia, where many Jews from the country- side had gathered for protection under the fortress walls:
    When the Jews saw the troops from afar they were
    frightened, though as yet they did not know whether
    they were Polish or Cossack. Nevertheless the Jews
    went with their wives and infants, with their silver and
    gold, into the fortress and locked and barred its doors,
    ready to fight them. What did those scoundrels, the
    Cossacks, do? They made flags like the Poles, for there
    is no other way to distinguish between the Polish and
    the Cossack forces except through their banners. Now
    the people of the town, although they knew of this
    trick, nevertheless called to the Jews in the fortress:
    "Open the gates. This is a Polish army which has
    come to save you from your enemies, should they
    The Jews who were standing on the walls, seeing
    that the banners were like the flags of the Polish forces
    and believing that the townspeople were telling them
    the truth, immediately opened the gates to them. No
    sooner had the gates been opened than the Cossacks
    entered with drawn swords, and the townsmen too,
    with swords, lances, and scythes, and some only with
    clubs, and they killed the Jews in huge numbers. They
    raped women and young girls; but some of the women
    and maidens jumped into the moat near the fortress
    in order that the Gentiles should not defile them and
    were drowned in the water. Many of the men who were
    able to swim also jumped into the water and swam, 
    thinking they could save themselves from slaughter.
    The Russians swam after them in the water. Some of
    the enemy, too, kept on shooting with their guns into
    the moat, killing them till finally the water was red
    with the blood of the slain.
    Rabbi Hannover's father died in the slaughter that
    year and he himself was murdered later. 

     In 1827 Russia, Czar Nicolas 1 lowered age for Jewish military
    conscription to twelve.
    The Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen (1812 - 1870), while
    serving a sentence in
    exile, once came across such a group of Jewish children.
    He spoke to their transport officer:
    "Whom are you escorting and to where?"
    " As you see-a horde of damned little Jews, eight to
    ten years of age. At first, they were supposed to be
    driven to Perm; then the order was changed. We're
    driving them to Kazan. I took charge of them for a
    hundred versts. The oflicer who handed them to me
    said, 'It's a misfortune-a third of them remained on
    the road (the oflicer pointed his finger downward).
    Not half will reach their destination. They die like
    flies !"
    The children were lined up in proper formation. It
    was" one of the most terrible sights I have ever wit-
    nessed. Poor, unfortunate children! The 12-and 13-
    year-old lads were still holding up, somehow. But the
    little ones, of eight and ten! ...No brush could
    create such horror on canvas. ..Pale, exhausted,
    frightened, they stood in their clumsy army overcoats,
    eyeing pitifully and helplessly the soldiers who lined
    them up roughly. Their lips, their eyes, indicated how
    feverish they were. Gusts from the Arctic Sea blew in.
    Without care or helP they were marching on-on
    toward their graves.
    [FromMilton Meltzer 'World of our Fathers' p 46]

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