Test of friendship. World War II, 1939–1945 (part 1)

The development of Poland-Portugal relations got disrupted with the outbreak of World War II. The aggression of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union against Poland resulted from the arrangements of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which provoked very negative reactions in Lisbon. Prime minister Salazar’s hopes that the conflict may be contained within a region, without further escalation, were dashed. German bombardments did damage to the building of the Legation of Portugal in Warsaw. Portuguese envoy, Sousa Mendes, evacuated himself to Königsberg. Portugal remained neutral, yet continued to recognise the Legation of Poland despite German demands to close it. However, it did not accredit its representative to the Polish authorities in exile in France. As regards the Portuguese press, it published articles with generally a clear highlight of Poles’ heroism in fighting for sovereignty, while Salazar and Lisbon patriarch cardinal Manuel Cerejeira spoke about the nation with sympathy. At the Lisbon MFA, the German envoy was told that the new Polish government was the legitimate successor to the previous one, and was allowed a substantial increase in the number of officials at the Polish mission. As one diplomat wrote, the Legation of Poland in Lisbon ‘changed overnight from a small outpost to the most important Polish representation in the western part of the European continent’.[1]

From the fall of France in June 1940 to the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944, Portugal was the main route connecting the European continent with the Western countries of the anti-Hitler coalition. The country on the Tagus was an excellent vantage point for the German-occupied countries, and Germany itself. The authorities in Lisbon gave temporary shelter to thousands of refugees, most of them from Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Poland. The first Polish refugees were already passing through Portugal in the autumn of 1939. In the summer of the following year, the country unexpectedly assumed great importance for Polish interests, as did neighbouring Spain. They became important transit countries for Poles intending to leave German-occupied or German-controlled continental Europe, including above all France. Politicians, diplomats and officials from other institutions, artists, scientists, journalists, and especially Polish Jews, especially threatened by the Germans, evacuated through Portugal. During the war, about 5,500 Polish servicemen and about 6,000-7,000 civilians passed through this country, a total of 11,500-12,500 people. This led to the first ever large-scale encounter between Poles and the Portuguese.

The summer 1940 saw an influx of war refugees into Portugal en masse, which made the government in Lisbon decide that the police would collect their passports, and that the people should be directed towards towns outside of the capital. The refugees were not placed in camps, though. The town of Figueira da Foz became the first largest concentration of Poles, and Caldas da Rainha followed suit the next autumn. Smaller groupings of Polish nationals were also dispersed in Anadia, Curia and Oporto. As time went by, more and more refugees were granted permits to either visit Lisbon or to stay in the capital. Polish fugitives who were still coming in post 1943, were in turn guided to Ericeira, which would host the most numerous Polish war diaspora in Portugal after Lisbon.

Towards the end of June 1940, prime minister General Władysław Sikorski handed over to the Portuguese government a request to let ca. 1,000 Polish refugees in. The Polish legation made a guarantee that they would be evacuated quickly, and that until then, they would not have relied on the local authorities. Only after their departure, was the Portuguese government to allow further exiles to arrive. The country did not have the capacity to become, for the duration of the war, a place of asylum for all the refugees who came to it; moreover, most of them wanted to leave Europe as soon as possible. Various restrictions were applied, in fear of the infiltration of subversive elements; generally, the measures did not target Poles although they were expected to take up arms against Germans. The Polish government could not always ensure successful evacuation for its citizens; however this was a precondition if more Poles were to be brought in from France later. It was not possible to organise a collective evacuation. Polish military and civil servants were waiting to go to the UK to continue fighting, or to work in government institutions. Civilians on the other hand would intend to leave for the countries of both Americas. The biggest problem for them was to obtain a destination visa.


  • Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, brother of César. In June 1940, he issued visas en masse to, among others, Polish citizens, including Jews. These were cancelled by the authorities in Lisbon. All indications are that all Poles who received them, entered Portugal. Bordeaux, ca. 1940. © ZAMSM
  • Visit at the Polish refugee centre in Caldas da Rainha by the chargé d’affaires of the Republic of Poland in Portugal, Gustaw Potworowski (seated 4th from left). 17th April 1944. © ZJK
  • Ignacy Jan Paderewski, world-famous pianist and composer. In October 1940, during his last trip to the USA, he stopped in Estoril. Photo from before 1940. © NAC
  • Józef Potocki, minister plenipotentiary, councillor of the Legation of Poland in Portugal (1940-1944), including chargé d’affaires in 1943, as well as delegate of the Polish Red Cross in Lisbon. Post-war photo. © ZPP
  • Józef Wittlin, an eminent Polish poet from the Skamanderite milieu, prose writer, essayist and translator. Pictured in 1940 with his wife Halina and daughter Elżbieta in Lisbon. © ZEWL
  • The building of the Legation of Poland in Lisbon between 1936 and 1945 at Rua das Amoreiras 105. Photo from 2008. © ZJSC

[1]    Here we have used the translation by Antoni Bohdanowicz in Jan Stanisław Ciechanowski (2015), Portugalio, dziękujemy! Polscy uchodźcy cywilni i wojskowi na zachodnim krańcu Europy w latach 1940–1945. Portugal, obrigado! Os refugiados polacos, civis e militares, nos confins da Europa Ocidental nos anos de 1940-1945. Thank You, Portugal! Polish civilian and military refugees at the western extremity of Europe in the years 1940-1945. Warszawa: Urząd do Spraw Kombatantów i Osób Represjonowanych, Oficyna Wydawnicza RYTM: 38. (Translator’s Note)