Introduction to Refuge in Portugal


Portugal remained neutral throughout the war.  Portuguese leader Antonio Salazar resisted efforts by Hitler to bring Portugal into the war on the Axis side.

Portugal, on the Iberian Peninsula, had a relatively small Jewish population of 3,000.  Jews had lived in Portugal since the beginning of the Diaspora.  They remained unharmed throughout the war.

After the Nazi invasions of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in June 1940, floods of immigrants poured into Portugal through Spain.

Portugal served as a major transit point for thousands of Jews escaping the Nazi onslaught.  It is estimated that between June of 1940 and early 1942, nearly 40,000 Jewish refugees were able to escape to Portugal from Germany, Austria, Belgium, France and other countries.  More than 100,000 refugees transited through Portugal.

Refugees obtained travel documents from friendly consulates in Europe.  Spanish, Portuguese, British, Chinese, Cuban, Czechoslovakian, Dominican Republic, Mexican and United States diplomats issued visas as travel documents.  Some refugees passing through Portugal had exotic passports to places like Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay and even Siam (Thailand).

In most cases, refugees had no intention of going where their end visas indicated.  The most desired immigration destination was North America.

Some refugees entering Portugal were well connected, having many relatives and sponsors who could finance their escapes.  Some very special refugees, including recognized writers, artists, musicians, scientists, intellectuals and others, were on special lists drawn up by the State Department and independent refugee groups in the United States.

Most refugees, however, had fled Europe with virtually no money or resources to support themselves.

Lisbon had several Jewish rescue and relief organizations operating there, including the American Jewish Joint and HIAS-HICEM.  Between June 1940 and the end of 1942.  The Joint and HIAS-HICEM sponsored 10,500 Jews in their escape from Portugal.  In addition, they had to maintain thousands of refugees throughout the war.  By February 1942, it was estimated that there were 32,000 refugees trapped in Portugal.

The HIAS-HICEM offices in Lisbon were staffed by Dr. James Bernstein and Ilya Dijour.  The HIAS-HICEM was largely responsible for coordinating transit documents for Jewish refugees.  HIAS-HICEM maintained contact with numerous diplomats throughout Europe.

The Jewish Joint was able to maintain good relations with Portuguese police and immigration officials.  Most importantly, the JDC chartered numerous ships from the port city of Seville, Spain, to the Americas.  These medium-sized ships were chartered at enormous expense.  Often, the entire capacity of the ship had to be booked in advance before there was a sailing.  These mercy ships were the Nyassa, Guinee, Teneriffe, Serpapinto, Magellan, Mouzinho and Colonial.

The Portuguese Commission for the Assistance of Jewish Refugees was particularly effective in helping Jews.  It was founded by members of the local Jewish community in Lisbon.  Moses B. Amzalak, a community leader in Portugal, was one of the organizers of the Commission.  The Commission was headed by Dr. Augusto d’Esaguy, who was assisted by Samuel Sequerra.  The Commission was extensively funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

The American Jewish Joint, led by Joseph Schwartz, maintained its European headquarters in Lisbon after the fall of France in June 1940.

After 1943, Portuguese Fascist leader Antonio de Oliveria Salazar liberalized the immigration policy, allowing more Jews to escape through Portugal.



Survival of Jews in Portugal


Jews of Portugal -  As of 1933, 1,000.[1]  Tens of thousands of Jewish refugees escape to Lisbon.  The largest cohort came after the German invasion of France, Holland and Belgium.  There, they attempted to arrange transportation out of the country.  Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux, France, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, issued 10,000 transit visas to Jewish refugees.  Most of them made their way to Lisbon.  For this unauthorized action, Mendes was dismissed from the Portuguese diplomatic service.[2]  3 Portuguese have been honored for rescuing Jews.[3]





[1] Gutman, 1990, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; Benz, in Laqueur, 2001, The Holocaust Encyclopedia, s.v. “Death Toll,” p.141

[2] Fralon, 2000; Paldiel, 2007; Paldiel, in Gutman, 1990, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, s.v., “Aristides de Sousa Mendes.”

[3] Bender & Weiss, 2007, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous among the Nations: Europe (Part I) and Other Countries, s.v., “Portugal,” p. 422



Updated November 4, 2017