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safe haven: portugal in WW2


In the film Casablanca, Czech Resistance leader Victor Laszlo and his wife Ingrid Bergman are trying to get to Lisbon, escaping Nazi persecution in Europe. Humphrey Bogart is holding two transit visas, left to him for safekeeping by Peter Lorre, after Lorre murdered two Germans to get them. Lorre is subsequently arrested and killed by the police in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, leaving Bergman to beg Bogey for the highly prized “letters of transit”.

So it was for hundreds of thousands of refugees during WW2. After Germany’s occupation of France in May 1940 the exit routes from Europe evaporated, making Lisbon the main fire escape for anyone fleeing the war.

Neutral Portugal became a temporary haven for Jews, anti-nazis, artists and spies. While Spain was also officially neutral, it was cooperating with Germany. Franco had only just won the civil war and Spain was a miserable place besieged by the local secret police and the Gestapo. Refugees with the right papers could transit through Spain, but it was not a safe place to linger.


By contrast, in the summer of 1940 Lisbon was celebrating. The Exposition of the Portuguese World was a six-month long event held to commemorate the birth of Portugal (1140) and the Restoration of Independence (1640). A series of vast and elaborate exhibitions occupied the docks area in the west of Lisbon, and decorations, parades, fireworks and festivities entertained more than three million visitors during the event.

People arriving from the darkness of war-torn Europe must have thought they were delirious. Not only lights, here there was food, shopping, parties and freedom.


Most refugees were not permitted an indefinite stay. If you had made it to Lisbon it was because you had already climbed the bureaucratic mountain of several countries, and successfully passed through the swinging internal doors of Europe without being refused, turned back or arrested. Although once in Portugal you were relatively safe, entry visas were conditional on the presence of another visa for your next destination.

The refugees’ flight from Europe usually first brought them to France. Initially Paris was the home to the masses fleeing Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of Eastern Europe. After the invasion, Parisians then joined the refugees and headed south, initially to Western ports like Hendaye and then when the coast became occupied, to Marseille, in Vichy-controlled France. There, they banged on consulate doors to plead for entry visas to the US, South America or to any other place that would accept them. To get to Portugal, you’d also need an exit visa from France, transit visas for Spain and the Portuguese entry visa, which could sometimes also depend on having booked transport out of the country. A good proportion of refugees were never going to make it to Portugal legally, particularly after Germany’s occupation of all of France in November 1942. Small boats taken off the French coast, night crossings of the Pyrenees, hiding in vehicles crossing through Spain: these were also part of the story of refugees fleeing the Nazis.


In France, the quotas for visas and the requirements for them changed from month to month. The waiting lines grew longer and one visa would expire while you waited for another. Offices of aid groups sprang up spontaneously and acted in shades of illegality until they ran out of funds or were ran out of town by the French. The Unitarian Service Committee, the International YMCA, the Red Cross, the American Jewish Joint Distributing Committee and the Quakers were all active in providing food, clothing and accommodation, arranging documents, negotiating for visas and escorting refugees over borders.

Once they got to Lisbon, accommodation was scarce. Hotels put in extra beds and opened up basements and staff quarters to ease the demand. As the war went on refugee centres were set up in Ericeira and Caldas da Rainha to cope with the volumes of refugees who had nothing, such as those who had been rescued or who had fled camps elsewhere.

Some refugees had a less difficult time than others, of course. Earlier in the war, the wealthy might have left their homes carrying small fortunes which could ease their escape. The casino in Estoril was frequented by wealthy Jews who could gamble alongside German officers of the Reich. The Aviz Hotel was the home of the moneyed allied-elite, who paid $6 a week (a month’s wages for an average Portuguese) for luxurious extravagance and exclusivity. Private homes in Lisbon and Sintra were opened to both paying guests or via invitation along the grapevines of the upper classes.


Fame was also a major advantage to putting you ahead of the queue. Writers, painters, and actors would receive preferred service from aid agencies and even lists were made of those most desirable for saving. But the names on aid lists were not just of celebrities. Prominent anti-nazis and individuals being hunted by the Gestapo were also singled out by consulates and aid groups, even to the extent of being actively searched for so they could be rescued. Once in Lisbon, they had to be protected, as the Gestapo might kidnap them from the streets. One of the concessions Salazar gave to the Axis was that the Portuguese secret police looked the other way.


Getting out of Portugal was yet another hurdle. For ordinary folk, passenger ships would be booked up weeks in advance and getting a ticket usually required paying a bribe. If you did secure a place, the steamships were inevitably overcrowded, with food shortages and filthy conditions. Ships that at the beginning of the war were considered to be at full capacity at 450 passengers, a year later would be carrying twice that amount, with passengers occupying triple bunks or mattresses on the deck. For the wealthy and well connected there were flights to and from Germany, Spain, Britain and the US, but seats were extremely hard to come by. The final option (apart from a fishing boat to North Africa) was the uber exclusive Pan Am Clipper sea plane which would make the New York trip in 24 hrs.


For rich or desperate there was no forgetting that there was a war on. Portugal’s neutral position could be upset by either the Axis or Allies at any time, and rumours constantly circulated about its precarious position. Salazar was playing a careful game of fence sitting. He didn’t support Hitler but he was a firm anti-communist, and being catholic and conservative dictatorship, Portugal had more in common with Spain and Italy than with Britian or the US. However,  the 600 year old treaty with Britain prevailed. Portugal’s neutrality really conferred that it was Britain’s ally.

But the neutrality could only be maintained because it benefitted both the Axis and the Allies to keep Portugal out of the war. Neither side wanted the obligation to defend her if called to. For Britain, Portugal kept supply lines open to Europe and tungsten and trade flowed to Germany. While Hitler saw the possibility that Britain might mount a new European front from the Portuguese coast, he also saw Portugal as as potential launching pad for an attack on Gibraltar and North Africa. Franco and Hitler discussed plans for the invasion of Portugal. Naturally, the plan itself was top secret but after Germany had so easily annexed Austria at the start of the war, the Portuguese were well aware of the danger, from a Spain bolstered by Germany, of being swallowed up by a larger neighbour.


Transient refugees probably only saw Portugal as an oasis, as any theoretical threat here would seem insignificant after having experienced the war first hand. The Portuguese, on the other hand could not glorify Portugal’s position. Initially the influx of foreigners was good for the economy, and ordinary people did benefit from the increase in demand for everything that was in short supply in the rest of Europe. However, by 1943 Portugal was in the midst of a food shortage and the scarcity of fuel caused uneven distribution of the food that was available. The influx of refugees and the increase in trade drove up inflation, doubling the price of staples like sardines and bacalhau since the start of the war. Black marketeering, crime and corruption peaked. For the Portuguese, neutrality did not necessarily mean peace.



  1. Sami March 23, 2012 12:27 am Reply

    Very well written and researched historical post Emma.

    [Reply to comment]

    António   Reply: March 23rd, 2012 at 6:46 am

    @Sami, Agree.
    Very interesting.
    Emma knows almost every hidden secret of Portugal.
    Very objective in her analysis…I like that.
    Carry on, dear Emma
    Hugs <3

    [Reply to comment]


  2. Helder Pinheiro March 23, 2012 1:09 am Reply

    Very interesting, and some news for me too 🙂
    Would like to know Your sources.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 23rd, 2012 at 1:20 am

    My main sauce is a book I’m reading called ‘entry and exit’…

    [Reply to comment]

    pamela   Reply: March 23rd, 2012 at 10:50 am


    Such an interesting piece you have given us this time. Who wrote ‘Entry and Exit’?

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 23rd, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    ok now… I think it’s really called The Lisbon Route, entry and escape in nazi europe, and it’s by Ronald Weber.

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  3. Rui Craveiro March 23, 2012 4:44 am Reply

    Very well written. I noticed you mentioned there was freedom, which is interesting considering Portugal was ruled by a dictator. Freedom has many facets and there was indeed plenty of freedom of all kinds but political, cultural and economical to a lesser extent.

    Make no mistake, it was a dictatorship indeed, however it certainly was a much better place than many other dictatorships.

    In spite of all his darkness, Salazar does deserve a great deal of credit for having brilliantly maintained our neutrality.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 23rd, 2012 at 7:22 am

    Thanks Rui. Freedom is relative indeed, and I meant it from the perspective of the refugees. Perhaps at no other time in the next 30 years would foreigners have felt freedom, in Portugal.

    [Reply to comment]


  4. paula March 23, 2012 10:01 am Reply

    Another good post, Emma. I think you might like the 2010 documentary “Fantasia Lusitana” by João Canijo, precisely about the “safe haven” Portugal was by then.

    [Reply to comment]

    Lynn Salt   Reply: March 23rd, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    @paula, thank you for this reference.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 23rd, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    ooo thanks!

    [Reply to comment]

  5. Lynn Salt March 23, 2012 9:06 pm Reply

    Thank you Emma, that was really interesting. I am going to pass this on to my daughters who are studying this period in history class. Is this only part 1? (she asks hopefully…)

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 23rd, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    actually this is part 2 (volframio is the first) and I’m planning another 3… but where do you stop?

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  6. Ana March 29, 2012 11:15 pm Reply

    Emma, I’ll add to the praise of the others, nicely written. You whet my appetite to learn more. Thanks to you and also Pamela for the reading references.

    [Reply to comment]

  7. kim thomas May 4, 2012 8:18 am Reply

    I found this article really interesting. My father who was a merchant seaman at this time spent some time shore time in Lisbon. He said the dockside bars and cafes were full of the agents and spies of every nation trying to pick up information from drunken seamen. He was only seventeen when he was involved in a big brawl with some Germans from another ship. It was an explosive situation as they were at war but in that place they were expected to behave. The portuguese police for the area were understandably the toughest available and he got literally caught up in a net between two police horses which they used to round up the trouble makers. He was imprisoned and his captain contacted the British Consul as was the custom, he came down with money for dad until he got out. Dad considered the jailors to of been more sympathetic to the British and indeed was treated really well, as long as he had money they used to take him to a cafe every day for lunch where he used to supply wine for them. This was a surprise to him as he had been warned by officers prior to shore leave that Portuguese loyalties were likely to be with Germany and to be very careful because of this. He remaind fond of all things Portuguese all his life.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 4th, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    wow, thanks for the story. history is alive!

    [Reply to comment]

  8. Maria Odete N. Oliver June 12, 2012 3:55 pm Reply

    Thank you Emma for this History lesson, which the Portuguese history books don’t teach. I am Portuguese, living in Canada for 42 years, but I love Portugal as much as I love Canada. I have always wondered about the Portuguese involvement in the war. For a country that was considered neutral, I think we were quite involved. We didn’t suffer human casualties, in the sense that we didn’t fight, but we fought poverty, like lines (bread) for everything. My mother met my father at a bread line, and sometimes when you got to the front of the line there wasn’t any bread left.
    We need books that tell us the whole story (history), the good and the bad. It’s by learning about the past, that we might prevent things like that from happening in the future.
    I loved your articles, very informative.
    I am from a little town called Adao-Lobo, Cadaval. In the same area as Bombarral, Caldas da Rainha, Obidos. Beautiful area with good fruit and wine. Once again thank you.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: June 13th, 2012 at 4:03 am

    thanks maria!

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  9. Barceló August 2, 2012 8:42 am Reply

    Being neutral during WWWII was a way for what happened, mainly in Lisbon, but there is another great “motif” for this “relatively safe” place for refugees, and that is the Portuguese cultural “naïveté”, even today.
    For Lisbon Casablanca flights during that time you may see http://restosdecoleccao.blogspot.pt/2012/03/aero-portuguesa.html

    [Reply to comment]

  10. anpecusil August 9, 2012 10:38 am Reply

    Very interesting all the information gathered.
    I´m an islander born and raised in Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira Island in the Azores, after ww2, but I´ve heard stories of local people trading fresh vegetables, eggs and whatever with U Boats Crews, behind Monte Brasil out of Angra bay. Of course, after October 1943, trading was finalized because RAF built an airfield at Lajes, on the Eastern part of the Island, and start operating ASW aircraft. No more bussiness….

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  11. Lx September 4, 2012 9:42 am Reply

    The airplane used between NY-Lisbon was: “Boeing 314 Clipper”. The “sea-airport” was located in Cabo-Ruivo, Olivais Dock (today… Lisbon Oceanarium). Search on youtube this rare vídeo (1941; no sound):

    “Aeroporto Marítimo de Cabo Ruivo – Lisboa”


    [Reply to comment]


  12. Janet S. Kleinman May 12, 2014 8:17 am Reply

    Great info for a chapter in the novel I am writing. Was Lisbon a jumping off port for The Jewish Fleet trying to get refugees in Palestine in 1945? I did know that Portugal was important to the Allies and to the refugees who were lucky to get there.

    Anyone who knows more… please contact me re. The Literary Life of Janet S. Kleinman. Thanks.

    [Reply to comment]


  13. Oliver Marshall August 3, 2015 10:54 am Reply

    This made fascinating reading. I’m trying to gather as much detail of the route that my German-Jewish grandparent took from Frankfurt to New York (via Lisbon) in 1940. Your blog post gave an excellent background.

    [Reply to comment]


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