Ragen, Naomi

(Simon & Schuster, 1998)

Reviewed by Sue Feder

That Jews have been persecuted through most of their history is well-known to most. The story of the Holocaust is well-known to all. But the details of an earlier Holocaust, precipitated by the sixteenth century Edict of Expulsion from Spain under Queen Isabella, is a more mysterious chapter in Jewish history. Tens of thousands of Jews who had lived in relative peace with their Christian and Muslim neighbors were killed or forced to forfeit everything they owned in order to leave; or forced to convert to Christianity, after which their conversions were doubted, questioned by the Inquisition and put to the test of fire.

Naomi Ragen tells the story of one woman -- Hannah Mendes, a true historical figure who was wealthy beyond compare and who lived most of her life as a secret Jew until she finally declared herself from the relative safety of Turkey -- through modern day descendants hunting for Hannah's diary. Suzanne and Francesca Abraham both live empty lives, without knowledge or care for their history, but are convinced to undertake the search at the command of their dying grandmother who, in turn, was compelled to issue the order by Hannah's ghost.

Neither Suzanne nor Francesca are particularly likable, and Ms. Ragen's agenda is painfully obvious throughout, making this somewhat more of a chore than it should have been. However, Hannah's story is at once fascinating and horrifying and demands to be heard.