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.