Skip to main content

Avraham the Wanderer

The Travels and Travails of a Portuguese Ger Tzedek

The year was 1617, and the location was the German port city of Danzig (known in Polish as Gdansk).

Port of Gdansk 17th Century

A gentile mob had massed outside the fortified villa walls of the Abensur home, with only one person inside —  a convert named Avraham Pelengrino.  Avraham felt his fear mounting, but after reciting prayers and with his faith fortified, he prepared to confront the marauders outside. He was there by choice since he could have opted to flee as virtually all the town’s Jews had when the disturbances broke out.  But Abraham was made of tougher stuff, and perhaps, as a ger, he also had something to prove.

Since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, many Marranos, as those living secretly as Jews while maintaining a Catholic façade were known, had slowly cultivated a vast network of commerce and trade spanning much of the European mainland, the Mediterranean and many faraway colonies in the Americas and Africa.

One such family was the de Millao clan from Lisbon, Portugal. The Portuguese Jewish merchant Paulo de Millao (known as Moshe Abensur in the Jewish community), son of the Marrano Enrique Dias Millao-Caceres from Lisbon, escaped from Portugal in 1610 and settled in Danzig. Other members of the family were found in the Portuguese “sister” community of Hamburg as well as in the “mother” community of Amsterdam.

As the historian, Ronnie Perelis, relates in his book “Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic,” the aforementioned Moshe Abensur set up a sugar operation in the Baltic port city of Danzig in 1613.  Abensur came from a prominent family of Portuguese-Jewish sugar merchants, and his better-known brother-in-law, Alvaro Dinis had established a major import business in the port city of Hamburg.

From a Comfortable Christian to an Indigent Jew

Description: Ruins of the palace of the inquisition in goa, Portugal
Source: Extract from “L’Homme et la Terre”
Author: Élisée Reclus (1830–1905)

The connection between Avraham Pelegrino and the De Millao family began in a Portuguese Inquisitorial dungeon in 1606.  Pelengrino was born Manuel Cardoso de Macedo to a wealthy Catholic businessman in the Portuguese Azores in 1585.  Manuel traveled to England to study because his father did business there, and as a curious thinker, he began to grow uneasy with the Catholic faith in which he had been raised.  At that time, England was a Protestant country and that denomination of Christianity found appeal with the young Manuel.

When he eventually returned to Lisbon, the Inquisition got wind of his new “heretical” beliefs, and before long, officials of the Inquisition arrived at his parents’ home to arrest him.  His father, a devout Catholic said to Manuel, “Son, have you said something against our holy Faith? Because there is an Inquisitorial official here to arrest you.  If he would be here because you were a thief, a murderer, or a highwayman I would save you, giving you my own horse and money; And if I would not have it, I would carry you on my back, because this is what fathers do for sons and sons for parents.  However, for something pertaining to our faith, I would go myself seven leagues on foot to get the wood to burn you.”

Manuel was sent to prison, where he met other prisoners, many of whom were secret Jews. One of these was the aforementioned Enrique Dias Millao, patriarch of the de Millao clan, who was arrested by the Inquisition on the charge of active “Judaizing,” for which he was eventually burned at the stake in 1609.

Manuel Cardoso became Enrique’s cellmate in the prison, and during their many talks together, Enrique deeply impressed the young man and Manuel became convinced of the truth of the Jewish faith.  Manuel recalled how the elderly Marrano handed him a book of Jewish law, which he spent the entire night reading. He was shocked to find that there were still people in the world who actually kept the laws of the Bible.

Manuel resolved to leave Christianity behind completely and become a full-fledged Jew, but he decided to fool his jailors and pretend that he had recanted.  He was released from prison and eventually escaped, along with members of the de Millao clan, to the freedom of Hamburg. There, he underwent a formal conversion, becoming circumcised and taking on the name Abraham Pelengrino (which means ‘the wanderer’).

The de Millaos in the Northern European Ports of Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Danzig

Description: Map “Dantzig in Plano” of Danzig (Gdańsk), with a panorama seen from the north
Date: 1687
Source: Peter Willer, the city’s architect (archit. civ. del.) in 1687, as part of the city chronicle byReinhold Curicke, as published in 1687,
Author: Peter Willer

The next leg of Abraham’s journey led him to the de Millaos, children of his former cellmate, – who were still in Portugal.  Having gained the confidence of the family, Manuel was entrusted by Enrique’s widow with the mission of smuggling one of the de Millao daughters out of the country in the dead of night; but two officials at the Lisbon Customs House noticed the suspicious activity on the water and alerted the authorities.  Amazingly, the Inquisition did not suspect that Manuel was involved in Judaizing due to the fact that he was from an  “old Christian” family and had just recently been arrested for flirting with Protestantism.

After manipulating the Inquisitors into freeing him and his fellow arrestees, Manuel wasted no time in planning a new escape from Portugal. This time he succeeded and made his way to the de Millao estate in Hamburg and after a short time there, on to the home of Enrique’s oldest son, Moshe Abensur in the nearby port city of Danzig.

Abensur had established a very lucrative sugar business in Danzig which employed many servants.  Moshe had a reputation as a shrewd and enormously successful businessman possessing frenetic energy.  Known as a very stern man, his servants both feared and respected him.

One day, shortly after Rosh Hashanah, tragedy struck — one of Abensur’s “mulatto” servants turned up dead. The cause of the death was not ascertained, but it marked the beginning of the end for the family in that city.  As soon as word of the servant’s death spread on the streets of Danzig, the local townspeople – who were filled with jealousy and hatred for the wealthy Jews — seized upon it as yet another opportunity to make the infamous blood libel charge against the Jews, accusing the local Portuguese Jews of killing the gentile servant for Jewish ritual purposes. Excited at the prospect of filling their coffers with the Jews’ plundered goods, the locals streamed toward the Jewish quarter, and the small Portuguese Jewish community in Danzig was seized with terror.

Moshe Abensur made a hasty decision to evacuate immediately with his family and close confidantes, leaving all his property behind. In a display of selfless loyalty or perhaps insane courage, Pelengrino, who was Moshe’s trusted employee on the estate, made the decision to risk it all and stay behind to protect the Abensur’s property.

As the frenzied mob advanced upon the Abensur house, an even louder commotion was suddenly and mercifully heard, as several local, heavily-armed constables pushed through the crowd and reached out to pluck Avraham from an imminent lynching by the bloodthirsty crowd. Unfortunately, he was thrown into the city prison where his cellmates turned out to be violent, sadistic brutes. Pelengrino later wrote in his diary that his time in prison was so miserable that he would rather have taken one month in the Inquisition dungeon than even one day in the Danzig city jail.  Eventually, he was freed, leaving prison a broken man in both body and spirit, limping and completely destitute.

Amsterdam: At Peace At Last

Ever-resilient, Avraham decided to make his way to the “mother” community of Amsterdam, where the Jewish community warmly welcomed him in.  By 1645, he was recorded as being the Shamash of the exquisite Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam.  Interestingly, it was his responsibility, to prevent non-Jews and so-called “Jewish-Christians” from entering the synagogue while services were taking place.

Not much is known of Avraham Pelengrino’s years in Amsterdam.  However, recently unearthed records indicate that the community took him under its wing and saw to it that he was able to marry, ensuring at least, that our tortured protagonist lived his later years in happiness.

Avraham Ger Tzedek’s autobiography written in Portuguese (note the Hebrew quotation), housed in the Portuguese Etz Haim Library in Amsterdam

Many of the foregoing details of Avraham Pelengrino’s eventful life are contained in a spiritual autobiography he wrote while living in Amsterdam.  The book, entitled “Vida do bem aventurado Abraham Pelengrino,” survives to this day in a beautifully copied manuscript from 1769 that is part of the collection of the famed Ets Haim Library in Amsterdam (see photo).

Source: Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic: Blood and Faith by Ronnie Perelis

%d bloggers like this: