Exhibit Details Portugal’s Honor in WWII : Holocaust: Memorabilia on display in Lisbon shows how it became a port of hope for refugees facing death at Nazi hands.


During World War II, neutral Lisbon was an anomalous place, a perilous tangle of intrigue that served nonetheless as a benevolent escape route for refugees fleeing the Nazi terror.

Relics of the humane Lisbon are on display at the Goethe Institute: a dogeared diary hastily scribbled by a Polish Jew in the dark days of 1939, old German passports stamped with J for Jew, tickets for passage on ocean liners to freedom and safety in the Americas.

“Fleeing Hitler and the Holocaust: Refugees in Portugal 1933-1945” depicts a city that was the last chance for people desperate to elude the Nazis. It assembles photographs, documents and memorabilia of the 100,000 Jews and other refugees who escaped through Lisbon, among them artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, composer Bela Bartok and writers Erich Maria Remarque and Andre Maurois.


“Portugal at that time was of unbelievable significance as a country of refuge and transit, and that is a widely forgotten fact,” said Christa Heinrich, a coordinator of the exhibition that runs through July 15. “What we want to do is put a face to these numbers.”

In one small room at the German cultural institution, she and her colleagues tell the dramatic story of the Iberian escape route.

Relief smiles from the faces of people photographed boarding the Serpa Pinto, Nyassa and Mouzinho--Portuguese ships that carried refugees to the United States and Brazil. The ships became “almost legendary symbols of hope,” historian Patrik von zur Muehlen said.

The despair and horror of the Holocaust also are documented. Janina Iadwiga Wurceldorf, a Polish Jew who married and settled in Portugal, wrote grim reflections in a diary saved by her children.

“They said their mother had always hinted at dark things in the book,” Heinrich said. “They don’t speak Polish and have never wanted to have it translated, so we won’t either.”

Another part of the exhibit tells the story of Aristides Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France. In three nights, he issued 30,000 visas to Jews without waiting for authorization from the government of Portugal’s dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

Although the Salazar regime was modeled on fascism, Portugal remained neutral in the war, largely because of its traditional alliance with Britain.

Salazar’s government tolerated the refugees, but the exhibition demonstrates that they got more help from American aid committees and a hospitable populace than from the state.

Sousa Mendes, who had 14 children, was recalled immediately and dismissed. He died in poverty and oblivion, but since the release of the movie “Schindler’s List” he has been likened to Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who helped Jews survive.

“The comparison to Schindler is unfair,” Heinrich said. “Sousa Mendes reacted immediately to the suffering of people. Schindler first had people working for him as cheap labor before realizing their suffering.”

Only after the dictatorship was overthrown in 1974 did the consul’s deeds and other details of what happened during the war gain wide circulation.

“It’s almost as if Portugal and the Portuguese were ashamed of having saved the lives of Jews and others persecuted by Nazism,” commentator Joao Mendes wrote in the daily Publico. The exhibition, he said, is an antidote to “this silence and cultivated amnesia.”

Surviving refugees have no doubt of their gratitude.

“Portugal was the only land that allowed thousands of us to escape,” Fritz Adelsberger said at the opening of the exhibition. “No other country in Europe did that, and so I say thank you to Portugal and to the Portuguese.”