There is the mass extermination of European Jews during World War II, which, 65 years later, is still a fresh wound in minds and hearts.
And there is the Spanish Inquisition, a dogma-based genocide against the Jews and their religion waged by the Catholic Church. More than 500 years later, it remains a pivotal moment in Jewish history, but the sting of the atrocities has faded with time.
Mitchell James Kaplan, a writer living in Mt. Lebanon, captures the mix of sorrow, depravity, fear and courage brought by all the players to that period in his new novel, “By Fire, By Water.” While it is impossible to appreciate what the Jews of that era — those who fled Spain and Portugal rather than convert, and those who carried on their faith in secret — actually went through centuries after the fact, at last we have a literary taste.
“By Fire, By Water” is historical fiction. Ostensibly it tells the story of two families. The Santangels, a family of conversos (Jews who converted to Christianity, or “new Christians,” as they were called) and the Migdals, a poor Jewish family seeking refuge in Moorish-held Granada — one step ahead of the conquering army of King Ferdinand and the accompanying Inquisition.
Though both families have chosen different paths to survival, neither can escape the violent whirlwind of the Inquisition, which will throw them together, intermingling their fates and loves.
Luis de Santangel is chancellor of Aragon and right-hand man to King Ferdinand. He engages in a diplomatic ploy to disrupt the ruling Muslim family of Granada ahead of the king’s invasion, but he is fearful of the Inquisition and appeals to no higher an authority than the pope to intervene.
He also rediscovers a dormant interest in his Jewish roots and begins a secret and dangerous series of study sessions with a Zaragoza rabbi to learn more.
In Granada, Judith Migdal, a raven hair beauty as Kaplan describes her, needs to make a living to support her blind in-law and nephew. She learns the silversmith craft and through her wits and courage, builds a business that makes Jewish ritual items for communities as far away as Cairo.
But her good fortune won’t last. No one’s will. The Inquisition will change everyone from the royal family to the most vulnerable Jews.
Historical figures such as King Ferdinand and his wife, Queen Isabella, and Tomás de Torquemada, the grand inquisitor who visits terror upon the Jews, are major characters in the story.
This novel of torture, intrigue, love and hope is detailed and graphic, but also passionate and sometimes hopeful. To use the phrase “happy ending” to describe this story would be inappropriate, but it is a human ending. While Kaplan makes us care deeply about these two families struggling for survival, the Inquisition is the true character of this tale. The effects of the time, arguably, are felt to this day, but how much do Jews really appreciate the period? While “By Fire, By Water” is not a history book, it whets one’s appetite to learn more, and that’s a good thing.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)