The People of Gibraltar
1802 - Simi Cohen

Jacob, Ester and Dolores, Sarah, Daniel and Isaac

In 1891 a rather strange story was published in Spain purporting to be historically factual. It was based on the life of an Augustinian nun called Maria Dolores del Amor de Dios. The author was a Spanish cleric called Augustino Conrado Muiños. It was called Simi la Hebrea

Front cover of Simi la Hebrea Published in 1891

Simi was born in Gibraltar 1802. She was the daughter of a rabbi of Gibraltar called Jacob Cohen. Her mother Ester Levi, died giving birth and Jacob brought up his daughter in accordance with the strictest of Jewish practices making every attempt to ensure that she avoided all contact with Christians. Rather illogically, however, he employed a Spanish wet nurse called Dolores who was a particularly devout Catholic.

Jacob Cohen - a Rabbi of Gibraltar

The trigger to Simi's subsequent conversion to Catholicism seems to have been brought about by an old woman who knocked on the front door of her house begging for food. Simi's generous response was greeted by a fulsome thanks by the beggar whose repetitive use of the words 'God' Jesus' and 'Mary' seems to have intrigued the young Jewess.

Simi attends to a beggar in front of her father's house

Shortly after this event Simi discovered a handkerchief embroidered with pictures representing the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary that belonged to Dolores. That night after having returned the hankerchief to her owner, the two girls opened their hearts to each other. Dolores explained how her father had lost his life in the Battle of Trafalgar. He had been an exceptionally devout Catholic and she in turn had sworn to continue in his footsteps. It was the moment of Simi's epiphany. She to was determined to become a Catholic and she wanted Dolores to teach her how to achieve the change.

Dolores the pious Christian explain the finer points of Christianity to her orthodox Jewish mistress

Not long after this encounter her father seems to have decided that he ought to remarry. Simi, he thought , needed a mother. The woman he took as his wife was called Sarah and she very quickly gave Simi a step-brother called Daniel.

Shortly afterwards Sarah discovered one of Dolores' holy books in Simi's possession. Jacob was outraged and Dolores was duly fired. Poor Simi was in disgrace and from that moment onward and right up to Sarah's death in 1817, Simi's life became intolerable. Her position within the family was reduced to that of a servant.

Jacob confronts his daughter with her forbidden literature

Simi was a pretty 15 year old when her father had a change of heart after his second wife's death. The Rabbi put aside his religious reservations and tried to recover his daughter's affections

Jacob with Sarah on her death bed and Simi crying over Daniel's cot.

This new state of affairs seems to have confused his daughter. One day when visiting a nearby church she happens to meet Dolores once more. The meeting simply confirmed what she has been feeling in her heart for quite some time - The Virgin Mary needed her services - she had to leave home.

Simi and Dolores at prayer

Unfortunately when she returned to her father's house she found that Jacob has promised her in marriage to her cousin Isaac. Finding such a proposition intolerable, that very night she sat down and wrote a loving letter of farewell to her father

Simi writing a letter of farewell to her dad

On the 1st March 1817 she left her house for the last time and crossed the frontier into Spain.
Her response to the challenge of a Spanish guard on La Linea de la Contrarvalacion must have taken him aback. 'Quiero ser cristiana!' she wailed.

Quiero ser cristiana!
The soldiers took her to the Vicar of San Roque who was rather incomprehensibly suspicious of the Simi's motives and declined to take any responsibility for her. Luckily a local notary public by the name of Don Baldomero who happened to be present took pity on her and invited her into his home.

The vicar of San Roque refuses to take responsibility for Simi

The next contretemps was a visit from Isaac - her unwanted suitor - who offered Don Baldomero money - which he turned down indignantly -and then threatened him with a pistol also to no avail - in order to force him to hand over his protégée.

Isaac demands to see his bride to be

A more pleasant visitor was her step-brother Daniel who continued to keep in touch as the years went by. Daniel eventually becomes a prominent merchant on the Rock. Despite his strong Jewish traditions he allowed his daughter - also called Simi - to leave Gibraltar in order to convert to Catholicism.

Eventually Simi herself was baptised in the Convent of Jesus, Maria y José of Medina Sidonia where she adopted a new and rather cumbersome Christian name of Maria Dolores del Amor de Dios. Entering the convent as a nun she continued to show signs of exceptional holiness. It would be the place where she died and was subsequently buried. The Catholic Church is at present investigating her possible canonisation.

Maria Dolores del Amor de Dios hopefully on her way to heaven

However overwrought this piece of sentimental nonsense might appear to modern readers it deals with historically verifiable events. Simi did exist and she did convert to Christianity. The story also seems to have touched some religious nerve in people with Catholic sensibilities. The book has been published more than a dozen times not just in Spain but elsewhere.

The totally inappropriate front cover of a 1952 edition

The background to the story is also politically and socially interesting as the basic theme is an unusual one: a Gibraltarian finding salvation in Spain. Nevertheless - and perhaps understandably - Simi Cohen is never mentioned in any of the more well known histories of Gibraltar, modern or otherwise. Which is a pity because she should have been .

Muiños' version of Simi's life is essentially correct- he insists it is entirely based on fact - and subtly highlights certain oddities about life in Gibraltar especially the relationship that existed in that era between local Jews and Catholics.

Frontispiece of the 1891 edition which insists on its historical pedigree

The 'novel' has been accused of being ant-Semitic as at one point it describes Rabbi Cohen forcing his daughter to tear up and spit upon some religious papers that he had discovered under her pillow. But I think this is missing the point which is that despite the much vaunted friendly relationship between the various cultures on the Rock, Jewish and Catholic communities had little in common and rarely mixed.

An idealised saintly portrait of Simi

At an important juncture in the book we are told that Simi decided to learn how to speak in Spanish. Although this does not ring true- it is inconceivable that a prominent Gibraltarian Rabbi with Spanish speaking servants would not be fluent in the language - it does suggest that the female members of various communities might not have been as multi-lingual as one might have supposed.

Dolores is obviously of Spanish descent - and a staunch Catholic to boot, all of which begs the question as why Jacob employed her. According to the author he had no choice. The Jews of Gibraltar at the time were too well off to have any need to gain employment as servants.

The fact that Simi did not take refuge within the local Catholic community but instead decided to flee over the border into Spain is also at odds with the usual view that most of the non-British population held strong Catholic views and would have been eager to take new converts. Lingering distaste concerning marranos and conversos - even for Jews in general - may have been much more prevalent in the early nineteenth century than we would have liked.

To end at the very beginning, Muiños book begins with the words : 'A la sombra del pabellón inglés que para ignominia nuestra ondea en ese pedazo de tierra española llamado Gibraltar.' It is a good indication of Spanish feelings towards Gibraltar in 1891, perhaps identical to those that have continued to this very day.

Simi la Hebrea - Page 1