Portugal was a neutral state during World War II and was not directly involved in the Holocaust in German-occupied Europe. The country had been ruled by an autocratic political regime led by António de Oliveira Salazar but was not explicitly anti-Semitic and was considered more sympathetic to the Allies than neighbouring Francoist Spain. However, the Salazar regime attempted to tighten its rules on issuing transit visas although it was not always respected by individual Portuguese diplomats. The regime was aware of the escalating Nazi persecution and took limited steps to protect Portuguese Jews in German-occupied Europe.
Salazar regime and anti-semitism
Portugal had been ruled from 1933 by an authoritarian political regime led by António de Oliveira Salazar. Portugal was unusual in not explicitly incorporating antisemitism in its own ideology. Avraham Milgram argues that anti-semitic ideological patterns had no hold in the ruling structure of the "Estado Novo" and a fortiori in the various strata of Portuguese society. Portugal's official nationalism was not grounded in race or biology. Salazar argued that Portuguese nationalism did not glorify a single race because such a notion was pagan and anti-human. In 1937, Salazar had expressed criticism of the philosophical ideals behind Nazi Germany's Nuremberg laws.
Yad Vashem historian Avraham Milgram argues that modern anti-Semitism failed to "establish even a toehold in Portugal" even as it grew virulently elsewhere in Europe. Due to official censorship of newspapers, the Portuguese public was ill-informed about the extent and nature of Nazi anti-Semitic policies.
Until 1938, Portugal was in the sidelines of the problem of Jewish refugees wishing to flee persecution by Nazi Germany, and that explains why Portugal was not even invited to participate in the Évian Conference. Portugal only started to became interesting as a transit route for those fleeing Nazi Germany, when Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland stopped granting them visas.
The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 led France and the United Kingdom to declare war on Germany. With Europe at war, countries of all kinds, neutral and non neutral, felt they should close their borders to prevent fifth columnists and agitators infiltrating refugee groups. With all countries closing their doors the number of refugees trying to make use of Portugal's neutrality as an escape route increased, and between the months of September and December approximately 9,000 refugees entered Portugal. Passport forgery and false statements were common. The Portuguese regime felt the need for tighter control. By 1939, the police had already dismantled several criminal networks responsible for passport forgery and several consuls had been expelled from service for falsifying passports. Portugal adopted tighter border controls from 1938 which made it harder for refugees to enter the country.
On 11 November 1939, the Portuguese government sent Circular 14 to its consuls in Europe outlining categories of refugees whom the Surveillance and State Defense Police (Polícia de Vigilância e de Defesa do Estado, PVDE) considered to be "inconvenient or dangerous". The Dispatch allowed consuls to continue granting Portuguese transit visas, but established that in the case of "Foreigners of indefinite or contested nationality, the Stateless, Russian Citizens, Holders of a Nansen passport, or Jews expelled from their countries and those alleging to embark from a Portuguese port without a consular visa for their country of destination, or air or sea tickets, or an Embarkation Guarantee from the respective companies, the consuls needed to ask permission in advance of the Foreign Ministry head office in Lisbon." the dispatch also stated that "the consuls will, however, be very careful not to hinder the arrival in Lisbon, of the passengers that are destined to other countries and especially to the transatlantic air routes or to the east."
Although it was overtly discriminatory, Neill Lochery argues that Circular 14 "was not issued out of thin air" and that this type of barrier was not unique to Portugal and with the country's very limited economic resources it was viewed as necessary. He considers that it was motivated primarily by economic considerations rather than ideological ones. Milgram expressed similar views, asserting that Portugal's regime did not distinguish between Jews and non-Jews but rather between wealthy and impoverished foreign Jews. He considers that Jews were prevented from settling in Portugal primarily because the regime feared foreign influence in general, and feared the entrance of communist and left-wing agitators fleeing from Germany.
German invasion and occupation of France
In May–June 1940. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the country's consul at Bordeaux, nonetheless issued an undetermined number of visas to people whose right to receive it or not was the foreign ministry’s responsibility, but the number of Visas issued by Sousa Mendes fell far short of the thousands of visas which his later admirers claimed had been issued by him. Evidence that his efforts were especially directed towards fleeing Jews is also speculative. British, Portuguese and American citizens, often people with means, figured prominently as recipients of visas. He was later officially sanctioned with one year of inactivity on half-pay and was subsequently obliged to retire. However, he ended up never being expelled from the foreign service nor forced to retire and he received a full consul salary until his death in 1954. Sousa Mendes' actions were not unique and other Portuguese consulates had also issued small numbers of transit visas on their own initiative. On 26 June 1940, four days after the French armistice, Salazar authorised the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS-HICEM) in Paris to transfer its main office to Lisbon. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, World Jewish Congress, and Portuguese Jewish relief committees were also authorized to establish themselves in Lisbon.
The use of Portugal as a escape route became even more difficult when in June 1940 the United States, that already had in place a strict quota system, further tightened admission of refugees from German-occupied Europe, with President Roosevelt's executive order 8430 and the Bloom-Van Nuys bill passed by Congress. This created a problem for all those wanting to use Portugal as a transit country because it became virtually impossible to get an American visa, leaving visas to Latin America as the only legal way out of Europe.
When Jewish refugees arrived in Portugal they enjoyed a different sense of freedom. Patrick von zur Miuhlen writes that "For many emigrants, Portugal was the first country in which they felt safe." Those refugees who were caught without papers were not sent back by Portugal. Instead, Jewish refugees without proper documents or sufficient money were placed by police in specific residences until it was possible for them to leave the country.
The number of refugees who passed through Portugal during the war has been estimated to range from a few hundred thousand to one million, large numbers considering the size of the country's population of about 6 million at that time.[a] However, Jews represented only a small proportion. Over the course of the entire war, it is thought that 60,000 to 80,000 Jewish refugees passed through Portugal.
Awareness and response to the Holocaust
From 1941, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received information from its consuls in German-occupied Europe about the escalation of the persecution of Jews. It was also kept informed of revelations about the extermination of Jews which had been published in Allied countries from 1942. The historian Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses wrote:
Salazar's analysis of the European situation [...] was based on an old-fashioned brand of realpolitik which saw states and their leaders acting out of reasonable and quantifiable considerations. The murderous racial enterprise that drove the Third Reich appears to have bypassed Salazar, despite the information that must have been accessible to him (very little of which survives, however, in his archive). The Portuguese press, meanwhile, was prevented from reporting on the Final Solution as its details became known, and Salazar never made a pronouncement on the subject. The fate of Europe's Jewish population was not seen as an issue that affected the national interest...
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, German officials became interested in preventing the flight of Jews from their occupied territories in Europe so that they could instead be captured and killed. In July 1942 the Reich Security Main Office asked German diplomats in Lisbon if it was possible to "prevent emigration from Portugal" as they had interest in "the seizure of the Jews...as part of the final solution for the Jewish question in Europe." In September the German consul in Lisbon advised the German Foreign Office that it was pointless to ask the Portuguese government to "extradite the Jews originating from Germany or territories occupied by Germany" and similarly it would be useless to try and accomplish the same through links between German and Portuguese security forces. An advisor at the German legation in Lisbon also wrote to the Foreign Office that the Portuguese viewed the movement of Jews through its territory as a humanitarian matter and that Portuguese authorities would reject extradition requests of German Jews, as they understood German law to declare the nationality of its Jews voided if they traveled abroad. The Portuguese authorities were unaware of these discussions.
Repatriation of Portuguese Jews
In February 1943, the Nazi authorities informed the Ministry that Portuguese Jews living in German-occupied Europe would no longer enjoy protected status and provided a window for their repatriation. In general, the Portuguese regime was usually willing to assist small numbers of Jews who they considered "Portuguese" but only protected a small proportion of those who claimed assistance. This included 137 Sephardic Jews of Portuguese descent from Vichy France in 1943 and 1944. 19 Portuguese Jews from Thessalonika in Axis-occupied Greece were repatriated to Portugal after already having been deported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. after a persistent exchange of notes between Lisbon and Berlin). However, Irene Flunser Pimentel argues "Portugal fell very short of what it could have done, only saving a tiny part of those who were threatened to be killed by the Nazis, and knowing that was their fate" and noted that repatriation of Portuguese Jews from German-occupied Europe was dependent on "rigorous proof of their nationality". Tom Gallagher, Salazar`s biographer, wrote that there is no doubt that far more people could have been rescued and saved if Salazar had had more time at his disposal to focus on the peril which European Jews had been cast into, but arguably Salazar was no more negligent than Churchill or Roosevelt who, in public, played down the deadly attempts to kill millions of Jews when the true extent of their plight had become known to the allied leaders by 1942.
Moisés Bensabat Amzalak, a leading Portuguese Jewish dignitary and regime loyalist, who had headed the Lisbon Jewish community since 1926, interceded with Salazar on behalf of the roughly 4,300 Portuguese-Sephardic Jews living in the German-occupied Netherlands. In March 1943, Salazar ordered the Portuguese Legation in Berlin to enquire whether the German authorities would permit these to be treated like Portuguese nationals who could still be evacuated. The Germans were inflexible, Berlin turned down Salazar's plea, and it was with tears in his eyes that the dictator told Amazalak that he had not been successful. The extermination of Jews in the Netherlands had already begun and continued into 1944. Only around 400 individuals within the Portuguese community survived the war. In 1943, Amzalak together with Leite Pinto, under Salazar's supervision, put in place an important rescue mission. Francisco de Paula Leite Pinto, General Manager of the Beira Alta Railway, which operated the line from Figueira da Foz to the Spanish frontier, organized several trains that brought refugees from Berlin and other European cities to Portugal.
Following the German invasion of Hungary, previously a German ally, Salazar recalled the Portuguese ambassador and left Alberto Carlos de Liz-Texeira Branquinho as the chargé d'affaires. In close contact with Salazar, Branquinho issued protective passports to an estimated 1,000 Hungarian Jews. His case differs from that of Sousa Mendes in at least three respects. He was deliberately setting out to save Jews, he had the full backing of the authorities in Lisbon, and was in the heart of a Nazi regime in 1944, when the holocaust was at its peek, while Sousa Mendes was at Bordeaux in 1940 long before the holocaust had started. Branquinho's name has been engraved in the Raoul Wallenberg-memorial at the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest. But in Portugal he remains largely unknown. Spanish and Swedish legations in Budapest were also acting in a similar fashion. Branquinho was finally recalled to Lisbon on 30 October 1944. Tom Gallagher argues that Branquinho's case has been largely overlooked, relative to Sousa Mendes, probably owing to the fact that he was coordinating his actions with Salazar and that weakens the core argument in the Sousa Mendes legend that he was defying a tyrannical superior. Gallagher argues that the disproportionate attention given to Sousa Mendes suggests that wartime history is in danger of being used in contemporary Portugal as a political weapon. Portuguese historian Diogo Ramada Curto wrote that "the myth of an Aristides who opposed Salazar and capable of acting individually, in isolation, is a late invention that rigorous historical analysis does not confirm."
Portuguese-German trade and the Holocaust
Throughout World War II, Germany traded with Portugal for tungsten ore, which was key for hardening steal used in armaments. Germany initially paid for the ore with escudos, but after the Bank of Portugal suspected that much of the currency was forged, Salazar insisted that Germany pay in gold. The United States Office of Strategic Services estimated that Portugal received a total of 400 tons of gold from Germany, one of the largest sums of any of its trading partners. The British ambassador to Portugal, Ronald Campbell, told Salazar that much of the gold was of "disputed origin", but Salazar ignored this. In 1998 the United States alleged that much of the gold had been stolen from Holocaust victims by German authorities. In response, a commission of inquiry was established in 1999, led by Mario Soares. The inquiry concluded that Portugal had not known about the gold's origin at the time it was received and thus there were "no legal, political or moral reasons" for Portugal to reimburse Holocaust survivors.
In December 2019 Portugal joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Portugal's first museum dedicated to the Holocaust was opened in Oporto in February 2021.
- ^ Neil Lochery estimates a high end number of one million.
- ^ Altares, Guillermo (19 June 2017). "When the world shut its doors to the Jews". EL PAÍS.
- ^ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Portugal, Spared Lives: The Actions of Three Portuguese Diplomats in World War II, Documentary Exhibition, Catalogue, September 2000, p.81.
- ^ Spared Lives pp.81-82
- ^ Blum, Matthias; Rei, Claudia (1 February 2018). "Escaping Europe: Health and Human Capital of Holocaust Refugees". European Review of Economic History. 22 (1): 3–4. doi:10.1093/ereh/hex014. ISSN 1361-4916.
- ^ Milgram p. 264
- ^ Pimentel, p 343-350
- ^ Ramada Curto, Diogo (5 Nov 2017). "O desconhecido Veiga Simões". Jornal Expresso (in Portuguese). Retrieved 4 April 2021.
- ^ a b Lochery, Niell (28 May 2014). "Portugal's Golden Mystery". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 23 April 2021.
- ^ a b "Portugal Spared Payments". The New York Times. Associated Press. 3 July 1999. p. 5.
- ^ Bandler, Aaron (4 December 2019). "Portugal Becomes 34th Member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance". Jewish Journal. Retrieved 20 April 2021.
- ^ "Portugal: Holocaust Museum in Porto has opened, the first on the Iberian peninsula". Jewish Heritage Europe. 9 February 2021. Retrieved 2 April 2021.
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