Test of friendship. World War II, 1939–1945 (part 2)
A leading role in caring for the Polish refugees was played by the Polish Refugee Aid Committee in Portugal. The entity was established in July 1940 and reported to the Ministry of Labour and Social Care in exile in London. Until 1944, it had been chaired by a diplomat Stanisław Schimitzek. The Committee paid regular benefits and allowances to refugees. Emergency assistance had been its major focus by 1942, then it moved on to organising evacuation of Poles from France as well as aid supplies to the homeland. The Delegation of the Polish Red Cross, managed by Józef Potocki, minister plenipotentiary, was another vital outpost; it concentrated on support to Polish prisoners of war in German camps, it also acted as a go-between institution for the mail exchange with Poland. From 1941, the Delegation for Europe of the Polish-American Council, run by Florian Piskorski, was also accommodated in Lisbon; it distributed aid from Americans of Polish descent to compatriots at home and in exile.
From summer 1940 to the beginning of 1942, the largest group of Polish citizens who found refuge in Portugal were Polish Jews (of Jewish nationality, of whom a large proportion had had a permanent residence in such countries as France, Belgium and the Netherlands before the war broke out), but also Poles of Jewish origin, who the German National Socialists may have considered Jews under the racist Nuremberg Laws. These two groups made up the majority of Polish refugees over the Tagus River. They could receive help since there was an ongoing cooperation between the Polish Refugee Aid Committee and Jewish organisations. The evacuation of these groups of refugees was enormously difficult because many countries kept denying visas to Jews. It was long not possible to obtain the right of entry into any country for about 250 Polish citizens of Jewish nationality.
For quite some time the only valid option for farther travel was the UK or the countries in South and North America. Such departures were funded to some extent by the Aid Committee, while Polish Jews could rely on the Jewish organisations for financial support: they could cover the costs of evacuation by ship. Travelling overseas was not a safe endeavour, though. For example, the aforementioned group of Polish Jews was safely transferred to Jamaica, a British colony, only in 1942. This was the way to dissolve the bottleneck. Portuguese authorities on their part, as they acknowledged pursuits of the Polish government and its good will, had been issuing new visas already for a while; it was however on condition that an applicant could show their target visa and a ship ticket to America receipt. Furthermore, the Portuguese MFA granted to the Polish mission a fixed and revolving quota of 20 visas for a free distribution. At the same time, some Portuguese consuls were handing out visas themselves, and, to do so, they would turn a blind eye to the fact that certain target visas or travel documents might have been fake or not arranged for whatsoever.
Polish refugees who managed to secure their stay in Lisbon intermingled with a multinational société that populated cafés along Avenida da Liberdade. However, their predicament of longing for home, suffering from war trauma, living through a personal tragedy, fearing what the future holds for them and their families, exposure to rumours that Portugal itself may be in jeopardy, gave rise to the feeling of bitterness and angst. There was news coming from Poland on terror and persecutions under both occupiers, on unwavering faith in victory of the nation, as well as on the phenomenon of the Polish Underground State, the most widespread structure of this type in the occupied Europe. Apathy would eat many refugees away. As the group itself was large, there might have been individuals who abused Portuguese hospitality, be it profiteers or currency traders. Nevertheless, sense of entitlement was rather a rarity among Poles. On the contrary, Polish memoirs of the time are by and large expressions of gratitude for the Portuguese hosts. As it usually happens when two nations encounter themselves so fast and so en masse, there were some incidents, they were however limited in scale, especially when compared with the situation in other countries. There were also some hilarious situations, outcomes of cultural differences. For instance, female Poles attracted attention as they sat long times in cafés, had considerable cleavage in their swimsuits, did not wear stockings and would have a preference for short, airy dresses.
- The Polish Refugee Aid Committee in Portugal at the Polish mission. Seated third from left is its chairman, Stanisław Schimitzek. Lisbon, November-December 1940. © ZJK
- Employees of the Lisbon-based Polish Refugee Aid Committee in Portugal. Standing third from the left is the Committee’s doctor Dr Adelaide Constantino Viegas. In the bottom row, among others, Portuguese workers in the parcel department of the Committee. Photo from September 1942. © ZJK
- Polish and Portuguese employees of the Polish Refugee Aid Committee in Portugal. Fifth from the left, Stanislaw Schimitzek, the Committee’s chairman. Lisbon, July 1944. © ZJK
- The building at Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca 49 in Lisbon, in which the headquarters of the Polish Refugee Aid Committee in Portugal was located between 1941 and 1945, and also the Delegation of the Polish Red Cross until 1942. Between 1941 and 1944 © ZJK
- The first headquarters of the Aid Committee in Portugal (between July and October 1940) at Rua Silva Carvalho 347 in Lisbon, in the same building that housed the Legation of Poland (in the wing on the right of the photo). Photo from 2011. © MM
- Staff at the Polish refugee centre in Ericeira, Polish citizens of Jewish nationality. Second from right, the delegate of the Committee in Ericeira, Jakub Kerner. 24th April 1944. © ZJK