Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal. Courtesy of Getty Images.

As the Nazis continued advancing across Europe in the early 1940s, many Jews looked for ways to escape their seemingly inexorable path. Lisbon, Portugal quickly became the port of departure from the continent. Yet, refugees there were betwixt and between—tasked with negotiating the complex steps that would allow them to remain in the country while simultaneously searching for a passage to safety somewhere far away.

In her latest book, Hitler’s Jewish Refugees: Hope and Anxiety in Portugal, Marion Kaplan—the Skirball Professor of Modern Jewish History—traces the taxing emotional plight of Jewish refugees who occupied this precarious liminal space. Kaplan examines and connects three pivotal locations where difficult emotions unfolded: national borders, consulate lines, and cafes. These gathering places, she notes, were often the sites of daunting or heartbreaking encounters with those who decided refugees’ fate at a moment’s notice.

Book cover of 'Hitler's Jewish Refugees' by Marion Kaplan

Kaplan became inspired about the topic while researching her 2008 book, Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua, 1940-1945, which chronicles the eventual path taken by German Jews who had been able to cross the Atlantic by way of Lisbon. Expanding upon that focus, she sought out diaries, letters, and other archives housed at the USC Shoah Foundation, the Fortunoff Archive at Yale, the Leo Baeck Institute in NYC, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in order to frame the emotional nature of the historical period.  

NYU News spoke to Kaplan about her new account of Jewish refugees in Lisbon. As she learned more about their experiences, she drew unnerving parallels to the current crises occurring at so many different borders around the world. “As a citizen of the United States and the daughter of refugees,” she explains, “I saw how this country tried to keep refugees out in the 1930s and 1940s, and how it’s doing that again today.”

How did the Portuguese feel about the Jewish refugees as they arrived?

There was a kind of generosity there. If the Portuguese were poor, they would offer food at the borders, and if they were middle class people, they helped in other ways. There’s one example I came across, when a woman went into a hat shop in Lisbon. It was too expensive, so she said “thank you” and left. But the owner ran after her and gave her the hat. It’s not clear if it was generosity towards Jews, but it was generosity towards refugees.

The book presents “an emotional history of fleeing.” What sentiments did you find were most common among refugees?

The emotions people felt were complicated. People despaired or were anxious or were fearful—and they had good reason to be. One of the black humor jokes at the time was that as the Nazis approached the French-Spanish border, they would take Spain in a week and they would take Portugal by phone.

On the other hand, there was a tremendous amount of persistence, of action, of not giving up. I try to make that point in the book: It’s not simply that they were all terrified and anxious—they were—but the same person could be very persistent and go to every consulate, go to aid organizations, stand on lines for days, and try to flee Europe.

How did these Jewish refugees balance the urgent need to gain permission to stay in Portugal with the equally urgent need to get far away from the oncoming Nazi forces?

It was a catch-22. The refugees wanted to get out and they had to ask permission to stay in. It was really very frustrating and exasperating. There was this beautiful quote from one of the refugees, who said it would have taken the pen of a Kafka to render the nightmare of the petitioner’s struggle for survival.

If there hadn’t been forgers and if there hadn’t been smugglers who could help people over the Pyrenees, many more Jews would have been trapped in France and died. Jews were called “Trojan horses” by some Americans in the ‘30s and ‘40s, [the thought being] “if we let them in, along would come some Nazi spies.” The term “Trojan horses” was also recently used by Donald Trump for modern-day refugees. He said if we let them in, we’re going to let some terrorists in, too. It’s the same argument: Some bad guys are going to come in with tens of thousands of good guys, so we can’t let anyone in.

How do the stories in this book connect to what refugees face today?

One of the things the book tries to do is connect the feelings refugees might have had with geographic locations they passed through: Fleeing southern France, and crossing borders, and waiting on lines in the consulates, and then waiting on more lines at the aid organizations, and sitting in cafes and being miserable together.

Today, there are many cafes in Berlin filled with Syrian refugees, and they’re sitting there doing the same thing that the Jewish refugees were doing in Portugal, which is commiserating, and also vying with each other for visas, and trying to make sense out of their new world. The big difference is that Jews were in the hundreds of thousands—they weren’t millions—and they had help from Jewish organizations. The UN today and all the organizations don’t have a handle on 30 million refugees.