Portugal and the Holocaust

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Portugal was officially neutral during World War II and the period of the Holocaust in German-occupied Europe. The country had been ruled by an authoritarian political regime led by António de Oliveira Salazar but had not been significantly influenced by racial antisemitism and was considered more sympathetic to the Allies than was neighbouring Francoist Spain.

German expansion led to the passage of substantial numbers of refugees, including some Jews, through Portugal in 1939 and 1940 for the first time. Fearful of the economic and political consequences, the Salazar regime tightened the rules governing the issuance of transit visas to Jews by its consuls in November 1939. The issuing of visas in contravention of regulations was widespread at Portuguese consulates all over Europe,[1] including by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, who issued substantial numbers of transit visas at his own initiative amid the Fall of France in May and June 1940. Large numbers of refugees, including some 60,000 to 80,000 Jews, continued to pass through Portugal on route for the United States and Latin America throughout the war although their numbers fell significantly from 1941. Lisbon was permitted to accommodate a number of foreign Jewish relief organisations.

The Salazar regime was generally aware of the extermination of Jews in German-occupied Europe from 1942 and took some measures to repatriate Jews with Portuguese citizenship from Vichy France and Axis-occupied Greece. An initiative to intercede on behalf of the Sephardic Jews in the German-occupied Netherlands at the initiative of Moisés Bensabat Amzalak was nonetheless unsuccessful. Portugal continued to trade with Nazi Germany throughout the conflict and may have received gold looted in the Holocaust in exchange. In the final years of the war, the regime provided tacit support for a number of small-scale rescue operations including the issuance of 1,000 protective passports to Hungarian Jews by the diplomat Carlos de Liz-Texeira Branquinho in late 1944.


Portugal was ruled from 1933 by an authoritarian political regime known as the Estado Novo under the former university professor António de Oliveira Salazar. It remained neutral throughout World War II but was considered more sympathetic to the Allies than Francoist Spain which pursued the same policy. Conservative and strongly influenced by Catholicism, the Estado Novo was unusual among contemporary dictatorships for not explicitly incorporating antisemitism into its own ideology.[2] Salazar himself considered Nazi racial ideology to be inconsistent with Catholicism and Portuguese nationalism was not explicitly grounded in race.[3] Avraham Milgram argues that racial antisemitism failed to establish any significant influence in the ruling circles or Portuguese society more broadly.[4] Due to government censorship of newspapers, the Portuguese public was ill-informed about the extent and nature of Nazi anti-Semitic policies.[5]

In spite of this, the country's Jewish community remained tiny and did not exceed 1,000 before the war's outbreak. Portugal remained largely undeveloped and agrarian throughout the period and, unlike many other countries, did not experience any substantial immigration from German or Eastern European Jews during the Interwar Period. It was not invited to participate in the Évian Conference in 1938.[6]

Refugees from German-occupied Europe[edit]

Refugee policy[edit]

France and Britain declared war on Germany following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. With Europe at war, countries of all kinds, neutral and non neutral, felt they should close their borders to prevent fifth columnists and agitators infiltrating refugee groups.[7][8] Given the absence of alternatives, the number of refugees trying to travel through Portugal increased substantially. Between September and December 1939, approximately 9,000 refugees entered Portugal.[9] The Portuguese regime felt the need for tighter control. By 1939, the police had already dismantled several criminal networks responsible for passport forgery and several consuls were expelled from service for falsifying passports.[10]

On 11 November 1939, the Portuguese government sent Circular 14 to its consuls in Europe outlining categories of refugees whom the Surveillance and State Defense Police (Polícia de Vigilância e de Defesa do Estado, PVDE) considered to be "inconvenient or dangerous". It imposed particular restrictions on "foreigners of indefinite or contested nationality, the Stateless, Russian citizens, holders of a Nansen passport, or Jews expelled from their countries" to whom visas should not be issued without prior approval from the foreign ministry.[7]

Although overtly discriminatory, Neill Lochery argues that the Circular was motivated principally by economic considerations and that similar restrictions had been adopted in other neutral countries.[11] Milgram expressed similar views, asserting that Portugal's regime did not distinguish between Jews and non-Jews but rather between wealthy and impoverished foreign Jews.[12] He considers that Jews were prevented from settling in Portugal primarily because the regime feared foreign influence in general, and particularly the arrival of communists fleeing from Germany.[12]

German invasion and occupation of France[edit]

Portugal shown on a map of German-occupied Europe, c.1942

France was invaded and occupied in May and June 1940. Acting contrary to Circular 14, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portuguese consul at Bordeaux, issued an undetermined number of transit visas to substantial numbers of refugees on his own initiative,[3] although their numbers fell short of the thousands which his later admirers claimed.[3][13] Evidence that his efforts were especially directed towards fleeing Jews is also speculative. British, Portuguese and American citizens, often people with means, figured prominently as recipients of visas.[3] He was later officially sanctioned [14] with one year of inactivity on half-pay and was subsequently obliged to retire. However, he was not formally expelled from the foreign service nor forced to retire and he received a full consul salary until his death in 1954.[15][16] Sousa Mendes' actions were not unique and other Portuguese consulates had also issued small numbers of transit visas on their own initiative.[1] On 26 June 1940, four days after the French armistice, Salazar authorised the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS-HICEM) in Paris to transfer its main office to Lisbon.[3] Initially this action by Salazar was done against the will of the British Embassy in Lisbon. The British feared that this would make the Portuguese people less sympathetic with the allied cause.[17] The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, World Jewish Congress, and Portuguese Jewish relief committees were also authorized to establish themselves in Lisbon.[18]

The use of Portugal as an escape route became even more difficult when in June 1940 the United States further tightened its conditions for admitting refugees from German-occupied Europe. This created a problem for all those wanting to use Portugal as a transit country because it became virtually impossible to get a visa for the United States, leaving visas to Latin America as the only legal way out of Europe.[19] Jewish refugees who succeeded in arriving in Portugal enjoyed a general sense of freedom and refugees caught without the correct papers were not deported to German-occupied Europe.[20] Instead, they were held by police under house arrest until it was possible for them to leave Portugal.[21]

The number of refugees who passed through Portugal during the war has been estimated to range from a few hundred thousand to one million but Jews represented only a small proportion of this number.[a] Over the course of the entire war, it is thought that 60,000 to 80,000 Jewish refugees passed through Portugal.[22]

The Holocaust[edit]

Awareness and response to the Holocaust[edit]

From 1941, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received information from its consuls in German-occupied Europe about the escalation of the persecution of Jews. It was also kept informed of revelations about the extermination of Jews which had been published in Allied countries from 1942. The historian Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses wrote:

Salazar's analysis of the European situation [...] was based on an old-fashioned brand of realpolitik which saw states and their leaders acting out of reasonable and quantifiable considerations. The murderous racial enterprise that drove the Third Reich appears to have bypassed Salazar, despite the information that must have been accessible to him (very little of which survives, however, in his archive). The Portuguese press, meanwhile, was prevented from reporting on the Final Solution as its details became known, and Salazar never made a pronouncement on the subject. The fate of Europe's Jewish population was not seen as an issue that affected the national interest...[23]

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, German officials became interested in preventing the flight of Jews from their occupied territories in Europe so that they could instead be captured and killed. In July 1942 the Reich Security Main Office asked German diplomats in Lisbon if it was possible to "prevent emigration from Portugal" as they had interest in "the seizure of the Jews...as part of the final solution for the Jewish question in Europe."[24] In September the German consul in Lisbon advised the German Foreign Office that it was pointless to ask the Portuguese government to "extradite the Jews originating from Germany or territories occupied by Germany" and similarly it would be useless to try and accomplish the same through links between German and Portuguese security forces.[24] An advisor at the German legation in Lisbon also wrote to the Foreign Office that the Portuguese viewed the movement of Jews through its territory as a humanitarian matter and that Portuguese authorities would reject extradition requests of German Jews, as they understood German law to declare the nationality of its Jews voided if they traveled abroad.[24] The Portuguese authorities were unaware of these discussions.[21]

Repatriation of Portuguese Jews[edit]

In February 1943, the Nazi authorities informed the Ministry that Portuguese Jews living in German-occupied Europe would no longer enjoy protected status and provided a window for their repatriation. In general, the Portuguese regime was usually willing to assist small numbers of Jews who they considered "Portuguese" but only protected a small proportion of those who claimed assistance. This included 137 Sephardic Jews of Portuguese descent from Vichy France in 1943 and 1944.[22] 19 Portuguese Jews from Thessalonika in Axis-occupied Greece were repatriated to Portugal after already having been deported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp[22] after a persistent exchange of notes between Lisbon and Berlin.[25] However, Irene Flunser Pimentel argues "Portugal fell very short of what it could have done, only saving a tiny part of those who were threatened to be killed by the Nazis, and knowing that was their fate" and noted that repatriation of Portuguese Jews from German-occupied Europe was dependent on "rigorous proof of their nationality".[22] Tom Gallagher, Salazar's biographer, wrote that there is no doubt that far more people could have been rescued and saved if Salazar had had more time at his disposal to focus on the peril which European Jews had been cast into, but arguably Salazar was no more negligent than Churchill or Roosevelt who, in public, played down the deadly attempts to kill millions of Jews when the true extent of their plight had become known to the allied leaders by 1942.[7]

Moisés Bensabat Amzalak, a leading Portuguese Jewish dignitary and regime loyalist, who had headed the Lisbon Jewish community since 1926,[26] interceded with Salazar on behalf of the roughly 4,300 Portuguese-Sephardic Jews living in the German-occupied Netherlands. In March 1943, Salazar ordered the Portuguese Legation in Berlin to enquire whether the German authorities would permit these to be treated like Portuguese nationals who could still be evacuated. The Germans were inflexible and rejected Salazar's entreaties. Salazar expressed deep sadness when he told Amazalak that he had not been successful.[7] The extermination of Jews in the Netherlands had already begun and continued into 1944. Only around 400 individuals within the Portuguese community survived the war.[22] In 1943, Amzalak together with Leite Pinto, under Salazar's supervision, put in place a rescue mission for European Jews. Francisco de Paula Leite Pinto, General Manager of the Beira Alta Railway, which operated the line from Figueira da Foz to the Spanish frontier, organized several trains that brought refugees from Berlin and other European cities to Portugal. Salazar had been persuaded to instruct consuls in territories under Nazi occupation to validate all passports held by Jews even though the documents were known to be far from reliable.[27]

Following the German invasion of Hungary, previously a German ally, Salazar recalled the Portuguese ambassador and left Carlos de Liz-Texeira Branquinho as the chargé d'affaires.[28] Branquinho issued protective passports to an estimated 1,000 Hungarian Jews with the approval of the Salazar regime in similar fashion to the Spanish and Swedish legations. Branquinho was finally recalled to Lisbon on 30 October 1944.[29] Tom Gallagher argues that Branquinho's case has been largely overlooked, relative to Sousa Mendes, probably owing to the fact that he was coordinating his actions with Salazar and that weakens the core argument in the Sousa Mendes legend that he was defying a tyrannical superior.[7] Gallagher argues that the disproportionate attention given to Sousa Mendes suggests that wartime history is in danger of being used in contemporary Portugal as a political weapon.[7]

Portuguese-German trade[edit]

Portugal exported tungsten ore to Nazi Germany throughout the war. The metal, used for hardening steel used in armaments, was initially bought in escudos but Salazar later insisted that payment be made in gold amid concerns at the Banco de Portugal that the German regime was using forged currency. The American Office of Strategic Services estimated that Portugal received a total of 400 tons of gold from Germany, one of the largest sums of any of its trading partners. The British ambassador to Portugal, Ronald Campbell, told Salazar that much of the gold was of "disputed origin", but Salazar ignored this.[30] In 1998 the United States alleged that much of the gold had been stolen from Holocaust victims by German authorities. In response, a commission of inquiry was established[31] in 1999, led by Mario Soares.[30] The inquiry concluded that Portugal had not known about the gold's origin at the time it was received and thus there were "no legal, political or moral reasons" for Portugal to reimburse Holocaust survivors.[31]

Post-war actions[edit]

In December 2019 Portugal joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.[32] Portugal's first museum dedicated to the Holocaust was opened in Oporto in February 2021.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Neil Lochery estimates a high end number of one million.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b Milgram 2011, p. 89.
  2. ^ Pimentel 2018, p. 441.
  3. ^ a b c d e Gallagher 2020, p. 122.
  4. ^ Milgram 2011, pp. 11–3.
  5. ^ Ninhos 2018, pp. 122–123.
  6. ^ Milgram 1999, p. 4.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Gallagher 2020, p. 126.
  8. ^ Altares, Guillermo (19 June 2017). "When the world shut its doors to the Jews". EL PAÍS.
  9. ^ Pimentel 2006, p. 87.
  10. ^ Pimentel 2006, p. 46-52.
  11. ^ Lochery 2011, p. 42-43.
  12. ^ a b Milgram 2011, p. 266.
  13. ^ Milgram 1999, pp. 123–156.
  14. ^ Pimentel 2018, p. 442–3.
  15. ^ Gallagher 2020, p. 124.
  16. ^ Lochery 2011, p. 49.
  17. ^ Lochery 2011, p. 53.
  18. ^ Milgram 2011, p. ?.
  19. ^ Blum, Matthias; Rei, Claudia (1 February 2018). "Escaping Europe: Health and Human Capital of Holocaust Refugees". European Review of Economic History. 22 (1): 3–4. doi:10.1093/ereh/hex014. ISSN 1361-4916.
  20. ^ Leite 1998, pp. 187, 194.
  21. ^ a b Ninhos 2018, p. 124.
  22. ^ a b c d e Pimentel 2018.
  23. ^ Ribeiro de Meneses 2009, p. 223.
  24. ^ a b c Ninhos 2018, p. 123.
  25. ^ Leite 1998, p. 194.
  26. ^ Milgram 2011, p. 34.
  27. ^ Gallagher 2020, p. 125.
  28. ^ Milgram p. 264
  29. ^ Pimentel, p 343-350
  30. ^ a b Lochery, Niell (28 May 2014). "Portugal's Golden Mystery". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 23 April 2021.
  31. ^ a b "Portugal Spared Payments". The New York Times. Associated Press. 3 July 1999. p. 5.
  32. ^ Bandler, Aaron (4 December 2019). "Portugal Becomes 34th Member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance". Jewish Journal. Retrieved 20 April 2021.
  33. ^ "Portugal: Holocaust Museum in Porto has opened, the first on the Iberian peninsula". Jewish Heritage Europe. 9 February 2021. Retrieved 2 April 2021.


Further reading[edit]