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Portugal, Salazar, and the Jews, by Avraham Milgram, translated by Naftali Greenwood.  Jerusalem: Yad Vashen, 2011. 324 pp.  $50.00.


In his densely researched book, Portugal, Salazar, and the Jews, Avraham Milgram focuses on the gap between the rescue potential of Portugal, a European nation that, surprisingly, resisted rabid and rampant antisemitism, and the number of Jews who actually received permission to enter Portugal during World War II. Unique in its more open approach to Jews, it nevertheless hobbled Jewish immigration when Jews most needed it.

              Milgram provides important background first. Starting with the Inquisition, he shows that, with few significant exceptions, Portugal began to accept Jews in the late eighteenth century, opening its gates to North African Jewish immigration in the nineteenth and Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth centuries. A very small and diverse Jewish community made up of Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and former crypto Jews thrived in the early twentieth century. As the absolutist state of the nineteenth century consolidated itself, its leaders disdained the Inquisition as anachronistic. “Antisemitism seems to have petered out in Portugal” (p. 43), as the state adopted a utilitarian and liberal attitude towards Jews. Indeed, the vast majority of rightists, monarchists, and anti-liberal circles marginalized racist antisemitism and pointed to intellectuals, liberals, and Freemasons as the new enemies. (Milgram does not explore if the Right assumed that Jews belonged to these stigmatized groups, or if Portuguese citizens understood these terms as code words for “Jews.”)

              A liberal Republic emancipated Jews fully in 1911. Conservatives aimed their ire at liberalism, not at the minuscule number of Jews in Portugal. Milgram insists, and is convincing on this point, that modern antisemitism failed “to establish even a toehold in Portugal” (p. 11) while it grew racist and virulent elsewhere in early twentieth-century Europe. Moreover, António de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal’s dictator, rose to power in 1932 without antisemitic rhetoric or violence. Even Portuguese fascists (the Blue Shirts) eschewed the antisemitism that proponents of their ilk espoused in the north. They admired Hitler, yet did not oppose Jews coming to Portugal to escape his violent persecution. This is impressive. Still, readers may wonder about this lack of prejudice, especially since Salazar dreaded and stigmatized “communism,” “republicanism,” and “liberalism”—more code words for “Jews,” at least among Portugal’s neighbors. In addition, Milgram admits that the police harbored antisemitism, transposing their general dislike of foreigners onto Jews. But even as the police harassed and threatened Jews, they did not turn them over to the Germans.

              Salazar and his minions performed a precarious balancing act before and during the war. At first they tried to please both sides, the Allies and the Germans. Starting in 1938 with the annexation of Austria, Portugal provided an important escape route for refugees to havens overseas. Then, in the summer of 1940 when the Germans overran France, a veritable flood of refugees—Jewish and non-Jewish—sought safety in Portugal. The largest number of Jews (13,000–15,000, according to Jewish sources) passed through Portugal, entering when, as Milgram notes, “the Germans called the shots” (p. 12). Milgram’s statistics radically challenge long-established but fuzzy numbers ranging between Yehuda Bauer’s estimate of 40,000 Jews passing through Portugal in 1940–41 (p. 61) and the American Jewish Yearbook’s (1944) estimate of 100,000 mostly Jewish refugees. Still, Jewish sources cannot tell the whole story, since Jews also passed through Portugal on their own, without the assistance of Jewish organizations. Numbers aside, Milgram underlines that only in the summer of 1940 did the Portuguese ease their strictures and only for a few months.

              Since most of these refugees hoped to flee Europe and since local business people welcomed them as consumers in the small resort towns where the government placed them (and where they were forbidden to compete with Portuguese businesses), why did Salazar insist on 30-day tourist visas and limit the number of refugees? Salazar feared all aliens, Jewish and non-Jewish, as potential communists and liberals who would undermine his regime. Before allowing entry, he demanded assurance of departure and the ability to pay for a place on a ship and for expenses incurred in Portugal (p. 248). Salazar’s Foreign Ministry, police and Interior Ministry took a “legalistic approach, sometimes tainted with antisemitic prejudice” (p. 91). Salazar, himself, knew about the deaths of two million Jews by December 1942 at the very latest (p. 228).

              As deportations progressed, Portugal refused entry to Jews claiming Portuguese origin or citizenship living in Greece (mostly Salonika), Turkey, and Holland. He despised the Portuguese Republic that had earlier granted citizenship to these Jews living abroad; he believed that his own consuls were providing “irregular” documents; and he worried that Jews of Portuguese origin, unlike other refugees, might actually prefer to remain in Portugal. He allowed several hundred of these Jews entry from France, but the authorities treated them with suspicion. Salazar’s government did nothing for its Jewish nationals in Greece although Spain was involved on behalf of its Jewish nationals there (p. 254). He also admitted no Jews of Portuguese origin from Holland. Thus, of 4,303 Dutch Jews of Portuguese extraction, less than 500 survived. Similarly, Portugal did not recognize Greek Jews of Portuguese extraction.

              As Germany began to lose the war, particularly around the time of Stalingrad (1943), Portugal did not exploit Germany’s growing weakness or its dependence on Portuguese raw materials (e.g., tungsten) to help Jews. From the end of ’42 onward, fewer Jews entered Portugal than before, and when Portugal allowed them in, it did so, according to Milgram, in order to help itself prepare for the “peace crisis” by letting in some Jews. Salazar agreed to save about 1,000 Hungarian Jews whom his consuls in Budapest desired to protect and at a time when other neutral nations were doing the same thing. Moreover, among the neutral countries (Spain, Switzerland, Sweden), Portugal gave the fewest letters of protection to Hungarian Jews.

              Notwithstanding this gloomy picture, contradictions abounded. Although Salazar, his Foreign Ministry, and police limited Jewish entry, the dictatorship consisted of many levels of bureaucracy and as many conflicting actors. Colonial officials in Angola, for example, and some of Portugal’s consuls—on-the-ground witnesses to persecution—showed sympathy towards Jews. The Governor of the Madeira Islands even clashed with the police, hoping that providing Jews a haven would stimulate the island’s trade and tourism. The extraordinary story of the Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who wrote almost three thousand visas even when Portuguese policy opposed the entry of Jews and even when he knew he would be punished, is known but deserves more acknowledgment. Even as he sought to halt de Sousa Mendes, Salazar supported several other consuls who intervened to rescue Jews: even Salazar himself embodied inconsistencies when it came to saving Jews.

              Significantly, Portugal allowed international Jewish organizations to establish themselves in Lisbon in order to sustain the refugees and to attain visas for their further migration. Lisbon was only second to Geneva in terms of Jewish activism starting in summer 1940. Once all escape routes had closed, these Jewish organization—HIAS, HICEM, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, World Jewish Congress, and Portuguese Jewish relief committees—focused on supporting the refugees so they did not become a burden on the state. Milgram explains (in too much detail) how the Jewish organizations vied and, sometimes, cooperated with each other. He rebukes them for their legalistic approach vis-à-vis United States and Portuguese policies in the face of mass murder.

              He underlines that, unlike refugees, Portuguese Jews had full legal and civil status and they identified with the regime. But he also notes the precarious position of the small Portuguese Jewish community. The latter worked very hard to provide relief to the refugees, to mediate with and assuage the concerns of the Portuguese government, and to cooperate (or not) with the American Jewish aid organizations. The Zionists also arrived on the scene having discovered Portugal later than the others (1943) and seeing it as a way station to pre-state Israel. Finally, some striking individuals entered the fray, opposing what they saw as the extreme legalism of the philanthropies as more news leaked in about the extermination of the Jews.

              Aside from the government’s complicated stance towards toward refugees—its refusal to offer them haven but its willingness to tolerate refugees already in Portugal and to allow international Jewish organizations to reside and work in Portugal during the first part of the war—Milgram also focuses in on a little known aspect of the Holocaust. Portuguese and even refugee Jews alleviated some suffering beyond Portugal’s borders. During the war, organizations and individuals in neutral countries sent food packages to Jews in occupied Europe. Portugal “became a main conduit” (p. 198) for these packages from 1941 on as Portuguese and refugee Jews initiated this aid both against the Allies’ ban regarding sending relief to enemy states and against Jewish organizations’ obedience to Allied directives. Packages arrived in concentration camps in southern France and ghettos in Poland. These parcels included food (especially sardines from Portugal), soap, and sometimes clothing. Milgram underlines the importance of these shipments for starving Jews in the ghettos and describes shipments that arrived after the intended recipients had already been murdered (p. 219).

              Milgram is at his best in untangling the confusing Allied, Portuguese, and Nazi regulations, the rivalries among Portuguese government bureaucracies, and the interplay among Jewish refugee organizations and Jewish individuals. More Jewish voices would have added more depth to this already masterful overview: how did refugees survive on the ground? What was daily life like? What were their accommodations like? With whom did they live? Did they shop? Cook? Eat at the soup kitchen? Befriend Portuguese Jews or non-Jews? Learn Portuguese? Read their papers? Consider remaining there? And what about grassroots Portuguese attitudes? We read that the refugees led “totally ordinary lives” (p. 116), but what is “ordinary” about being a refugee? We learn that most Portuguese supported the Allies and sympathized with the plight of the Jews, but the evidence is thin.

              In sum, Milgram’s careful and compellingscholarship leaves a damning picture of a Portugal that, despite significant contradictions within its government and in its policies, could have saved far more Jews than it did. A huge gap remained between Portugal’s rescue potential after the war turned against Germany and the few thousand Jews who found a safe haven there. Milgram proves his point that one did not need antisemitism to turn away Jews.

Marion Kaplan

Skirball Professor of Modern Jewish History

New York University