click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Escape from the Inquisition

Escape from the Inquisition

Publicly, Dr. Nunez was serving Church dignitaries; privately he was committing religious crimes deserving of death at the stake.


Dr. Nunez was in a crisis. Would he ever escape the eagle eye of his guards?

Dr. Samuel Nunez of Lisbon, Portugal, was born to a Marrano family that was still passing along the torch of Judaism two centuries after Spain expelled all its practicing Jews in 1492. Nunez lived a double life. Publicly, he was a distinguished doctor serving high dignitaries of the Catholic Church; privately, he and his family were committing religious crimes that could earn them death at the stake.

All went well until the spring of 5486/1726 when Inquisition spies caught him, his wife Rebecca, and his three children red-handed in the middle of a Passover Seder. For most Marranos, the crime of "seeking the Lord according to their prohibited faith" would have signified torture and death. Fortunately, Dr. Nunez was the private physician and close friend of the Grand Inquisitor who was suffering from an enlarged prostate gland and reluctant to lose the good doctor's services.

The doctor was spared on condition that two Inquisition officials reside at his home day and night, keeping a sharp eye on his activities.

An agreement was struck. The doctor was spared on condition that two Inquisition officials reside at his home day and night, keeping a sharp eye on his activities. Now, severed from his spiritual roots, the doctor felt that life in Portugal was unbearable and plotted a brilliant escape.

Many years later, Major Mordechai M. Noah, great grandson of a Marrano who had fled with the doctor, recorded how Nunez fooled his jailors:

"The doctor had a large and elegant mansion on the banks of the Tagus, and being a man of large fortune, he was in the habit of entertaining the principal families of Lisbon. On a pleasant summer day, he invited a party to dinner, and among the guests was a captain of an English brigantine anchored at some distance in the river. While the company were amusing themselves on the lawn, the captain invited the family and part of the company to accompany him on board the brigantine and partake of a lunch prepared for the occasion.

"All the family, together with the spies of the Inquisition and a portion of the guests, repaired on board the vessel, and while they were below in the cabin enjoying the hospitality of the captain, the anchor was weighed, the sails unfurled, and the weather being fair, the brigantine shot out of the Tagus, was soon at sea, and carried the whole party to England.

"It had been previously arranged between the doctor and the captain to convey the family to England for a thousand moidores in gold. The ladies had secreted all their diamonds and jewels, which were quilted in their dresses, and the doctor, having previously changed all his securities into gold, distributed it among the gentlemen of the family and carried around them in leathern belts. His house, plate, furniture, servants, equipage, and even the dinner cooked for the occasion were all left, and were subsequently seized by the Inquisition and confiscated to the state."1

Soon after his arrival in England, the doctor heard that a group of 40 Jews was sailing overseas to the newly founded English colony of Georgia. He sailed off with them to become the second Jewish doctor in North America.

Mr. Benjamin Sheftall, one of the Jewish passengers on board, described the group's arrival in his journal:

"The names of the Jews who arrived in Savannah, Georgia on the 11th day of July, 1733. Doctor Nunis, Mrs. Nunis his mother, Daniel Nunis, Moses Nunez, Sipra Nunez, Shem Noah their servant .... These Jews were the first of our nation who came to this country [Georgia]. They brought with them a Safer Torah with two cloaks, and a circumcision box, which were given to them by Mr. Lindo, a merchant in London, for the use of the congregation they intended to establish."2

Yet, even in the relative freedom of America, it took the doctor's family years to shake off the last vestiges of their Catholicism.

"For years after their arrival in this country," it is reported, "the female members of the family were unable to repeat their [Jewish] prayers without the assistance of the Catholic rosary, by reason of the habit acquired in Portugal for the purpose of lending the appearance of Catholic form should they be surprised at their devotions."3

Dr. Nunez left many descendants, the best known his great-grandson Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jew ever appointed Commodore in the US Navy. True to his great-grandfather's Jewish principles, Levy was instrumental in abolishing the navy's vicious punishment of flogging men before the mast.

Additional sources: [1] Weinstein, Dr. Alfred A. "Georgia's First Physician." Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, Summer 1961. [3] Huhner Leon, "The Jews of Georgia in Colonial Times." American Jewish Historical Association volume 10.

This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman (USA).

1. "Statistics of Georgia" by George White. Cited by Phillips, N. Taylor in "Family History of the Reverend David Mendez Machado," American Jewish Historical Association volume 2, 1894.
2. Sheftall Mordecai, "The Jews in Savannah." The Occident vol, 1 no. 8.
3. Phillips, N. Taylor in "Family History of the Reverend David Mendez Machado," American Jewish Historical Association volume 2, 1894.

December 6, 2008

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Anonymous, August 23, 2011 10:18 PM


Like the Nunez family, many Portuguese families had identical odysseys, with some going to the Netherlands and even Greece, where they continued to perform their services freely. But those who remain, history has shown that is very different.Families who hid through Christian practices during day his Judaism and with time were being lost through mixed marriages and even forgot about their family histories. My family is Catholic, strange as it may mainly seemed to many Catholics, because my mother taught us to pray in a "strange" way, which in turn had learned from his mother. But if you ask my grandmother what her religion, she says Catholic, like my mother, who attend church, use the Rosary, but pray, "Hear, The Lord is thy God: the Lord is One". So I was taught to start the Rosary . Just recently I started to be curious about this way of praying in my family, and because some strange habits, like every Friday night have noticed my grandmother light a candle and said "May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers, to be gracious to me and to all my family, remember us for good and blessing; considers compassion and salvation for us, bless us with great blessings; make our complete household, crowning our home with the feeling of Your Divine Presence dwelling among us. Make me worthy Learned to raise children and grandchildren. Please hear our prayers, and Ensures that the glow of our lives will never be dimmed. Show us the glow of Your face and we will be saved. Amen. ", my mother do not, when asked the reason for her to have forgotten what my grandmother did, she says we don’t have time, "after all the city life is different from country life". I write this because I pity that in time the true traditions and cultural identities are losing, my mother has lost the Friday candle, was one generation,what more we have lost before in so many generations ! Excuse my English.

(14) Alon Tolwin, June 2, 2009 5:36 PM

more decendants

When I married my wife, little did I know the history that I married into. Nunez' daughter married Mordechai Mordechai, a rabbi from Telshe Lithavania, their daughter Tova married Phillip Moses Russel, the only Jew who fought with Washington at Valley Forge. He was my wife's grandfather some 7 generations back. Now, our son Noach, with his payot and chumash tucked under his arm, is a member of the SAR, Son's of the American Revolution!

(13) Carol Ayers, December 31, 2008 10:16 PM

Thank you for the article about Dr. Nunez. I am proud to be his 8th great grand daughter and proud of who I come from. May his legacy live on!

(12) Anonymous, December 14, 2008 10:46 PM

The call of Ancestry

Dear Sir: Thank you so very much for this text. It is pertinent to my own life search for anwers concerning my past, and Spiritual adhesion. I am a Great-great-great-great relation to Rabbi David Nunes, of Amsterdam Holland, who served the Iberian Community when it was, ejected from Portugal. My own family (both sides) ended up on an Island within a short distance of Morocco, though there is an emphasis on "Portuguese" descent. Why we ended up there has never been explained, nor addressed. I have always known about my Jewish ancestors, not only because of being advised at a very young age that though "Christians", we were not like others - the heathens. There was no mention of a human g-d, ever, only an unknown, unseen G-d, who was omniscient etc.. As well, Nunes, is a name that I bear, as does a few members of my immediate family - proudly. Again, many thanks, it does affirm my right to a place amidst Yisroel. Ahavah

(11) Nancie Meddin Clark, December 13, 2008 8:32 AM

The Continuing Saga of Nunez in North America

Between 1740 and 1741 Nunez, his family and all of the Sephardim from the William and Sarah left Savannah for Charleston, SC. (the cradle of Reform Judaism in the US). England had declared war on Spain (The 1739 War of Jenkins Ear) and they feared the inquisition they had fled in Portugal. He is buried there today. Reference: Third to None, The Saga of Savannah Jewry 1733-1983, Rabbi Saul Jacob Rubin,pp 16-17

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment