Monday 2 February 2009

A forgotten hero?

A belated link to a Holocaust Memorial Day tribute , over at Cafe Turco, to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, who in 1940 saved the lives of more than 10,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis, by arranging their safe passage to his home country, at great personal cost. I hadn't heard of Mendes before, and I would think his story is little known in the English-speaking world. Sarah's post includes a clip from a dramatisation of the Mendes story, which lifts the spirits, as well as being a salutary reminder, especially in these days of renascent antisemitism

I seem to remember reading in a Paul Auster story that Portugal was something of a safe haven for Jews escaping Nazi persecution, but this doesn't quite compute with my mental image of Salazar's regime. Perhaps someone who knows more about these things can enlighten me.


Anonymous said...

Salazar took revenge on Aristides de Sousa Mendes for his defiance, but the Jews were well received. On arrival they had to registrer, and afterwards they were sent to various locations around the country, in a way not to be too concentrated.

They were sent to hotels in very very nice places by the sea like like Estoril and Ericeira where I live, and to small cities, like Caldas da Raínha and others.

In these small cities they were very friendly welcomed by the population and those who stayed during all the war (many were on transit to the US) were integrated by the population and provided with jobs, such as teaching foreign languages, or theatre, music, etc.

The Jewish women provoked a revolution in social behaviour. First of all they had considerable more style and taste, and established new trends in fashion. Most importantly, they liked to spend hours in the cafés, while the Portuguese women didn't go. Soon their modern behaviour started being copied by the local bourgeousy.

Portugal was neutral, but for a long time was in fact colaborating with Germany, selling raw material for the war and getting payed with gold stolen from the central banks of the ocupied countries, but also with gold stolen from the prisoners, inclusing of course the Jews.

Salazar was a pretty clever guy and as soon as he realized that it was better to him to bounce his neutrality towards the Allies, he also knew that the good treatment of the Jews would eventually be awarded. In a way, that helped him whitewashing the fascist character of his regime, which in turn was important also to allow Portugal into NATO as a founding member.

so he didn't act out of kindness, but he was pragmatic.

Nowadays Portugal has excellent relations to Israel and also to the Palestinian Authority. In the 1980s a public apology for the persecution of the Jews and the inquisition was made by Mario Soares, then President.

Martin said...

Sarah - Many thanks for this detailed and informative feedback. It made me realise how little I know about modern Portuguese history.I wonder if you can recommend a good book in English? I've read a short book by Jose Hermano Saraiva, and I recently found a second-hand book on the dictatorship by Antonio de Figuerido - but perhaps you know of something better?

Anonymous said...

josé Hemano saraiva isn't a serious historian. He's ok, in the sense that he is very lively, not boring, ad because of that he contributed a lot to make history more popular,but he is not very rigorous.I'll see what is there in english.

there is an excellent novel by richard zimler that I think you will like.

it's fiction, but the description of the true events it involves is very good.

Martin said...

Thank you, Sarah - the Zimler book looks fascinating and I will certainly take a look at it. I discovered Lisbon through fiction long before I visited it - Saramago's 'Death of Ricardo Reis' is one of my favourite novels of all time, though I disagree with its authors politics! Pessoa, of course, is one of my heroes (when we visited Lisbon it was a great thrill to sit in his favourite Cafe Martinho do Arcado). I look to learning more about Lisbon's past from Zimler.

Anonymous said...

Dr Salazar's regime could probably best be described as authoritarian and catholic. It was not particulary militaristic unlike Spain but was certainly intellectually aligned to the right. However Salazar was acute politically and could see the way the wind blew and never committed himself to the Axis.

bob said...

There is now a Museum of Exile in Estoril that currently has an exhibition about this man.

Martin said...

Sorry to have missed it when I was there last week. We walked along the Marginal from Cascais in the simmering heat but only got as far as Estoril station and the casino before turning back. Maybe next time...