Up to 100,000 refugees migrated through Portugal during the Second World War. An overwhelming majority of them were persecuted Jews attempting to reach safety on the other side of the Atlantic. It is to their experience that Marion Kaplan dedicated her recent book, Hitler’s Jewish Refugees. Hope and Anxiety in Portugal.
The author’s focus is primarily on Jews from Germany and the territories incorporated into the III Reich before the outbreak of the war. The analysis concentrates on their stay in Portugal in the 1940s, considered by the author “a key moment in the refugee experience – living in limbo” (p. 2). It is based on various types of biographic documents: refugees’ memoirs and letters, but also videotaped interviews. The author managed to gather and analyze hardly accessible material, at best self-published in very low number of copies. These sources gave her an insight into the exiles’ minds, highlighting their agency and personal interpretations of war-time circumstances.
Kaplan underlines two more methodological aspects of her research. The first one is a gender perspective, stressing that “refugeedom” (to borrow the expression of Peter Gatrell) led to different consequences, losses and opportunities for men and women. Secondly, there is what we could call a geographical perspective, alluding to “Holocaust landscapes” and “emotional geographies” (p. 5). The author concentrates on the spaces that the refugees traversed, the emotions that they inspired, and changes of their symbolical meanings in the context of war and the Holocaust.
The book centers around the refugees’ “strategies for physical and emotional survival” (p. 3) on various stages of their flight. Beginning with preparations for departure, we witness the obstacles faced by the people willing or forced to emigrate. Never-ending queues, confrontations with consuls and border guards deciding over their fate, under pressure and with constantly changing legislation. The author stresses the overwhelming gap between the previous and war-time lives of the refugees: decent, quiet citizens suddenly had to become obstinately determined and pushy, sometimes even resort to unlawful (and risky) practices such as lie, forgery or clandestine border-crossing in order to save their lives.
As we follow the exiles’ steps, we get to know different people and institutions that crossed their way. Kaplan analyzes the attitude of foreign governments towards the refugee crisis in Europe and the ambiguous role of Portugal as a country of transit. It is not to be underestimated that more refugees were admitted there than to any other neutral state during the Second World War. However, the Portuguese authorities constantly reminded them that they had overstayed their welcome. This position stands in stark contrast to disinterested kindness and generosity offered by simple Portuguese people. The depiction of various levels of interactions between the refugees and the local society is an important contribution of the book.
We also get to know the spaces constituting the flight’s scenery: queues, consulates, police stations, border crossings, offices of relief organizations, forced residences, trains, ships, and other. No matter how dim the connotations were that these places acquired during the war, they were also venues where the refugees met. There, and especially in cafés, which occupied a particular place in the refugees’ imaginary, new friendships were born. They brought, at least temporarily, comfort, relief and a sense of belonging. Other activities were meant to preserve a souvenir of the past life. Some clung to things evoking cherished memories, such as an elegant hat that one woman carried all the way through the Pyrenees (p. 135). Others struggled to exchange letters with their families or friends who stayed behind. Kaplan shows that all these practices provided a “lifeline” (p. 182) enabling the refugees to endure until their emigration from Europe.
The most valuable input of the book is its focus on the refugees’ perspective. The thorough analysis of autobiographical sources reveals a whole spectrum of their emotions and states, taking into account both gender and age gaps influencing their experience in Portugal. Moreover, Kaplan effectively shows the refugees’ agency, undermining the stereotypical image of a refugee as a hopeless, passive object of international negotiations. Despite the dire circumstances and the vicissitudes of the policy makers, the refugees made effort to take their fate in their own hands, and they did it with great wit, resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. Not only did they adapt to new places, strange customs and foreign languages, but also challenged the existing order and transformed it.
Another important argument is that the study of Jewish refugees at the tip of Europe expands a research perspective on the subject of the Holocaust. It is by no means to compare the sacrifice made by those who did and who did not manage to escape, but to underline the destructive magnitude of the Shoah. As Kaplan put it: “Drawing attention to the periphery does not detract from the genocide, but in fact highlights the range and reach of the Holocaust and its impact even on those who got away.” (p. 3)
Each chapter begins with a short, but poignant quote of a contemporary exile, linking the European refugees’ stories in Portugal during the Second World War with the present instances of flight. The author argues that despite certain vital differences, the past and present conflicts leave on their civilian victims universal marks: political, social, economic and psychological. The book reminds us that refugee crises remain a relevant and urging problem, and that behind each statistic is an individual story.
Marion Kaplan’s Hitler’s Jewish Refugees is an excellent, well-written and consciously augmented work. The author’s approach, centered on individual’s perspective and refugees’ agency, sets the bar high for future historical research on human migrations.
 Peter Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee, Oxford 2013, p. 7.