Test of friendship. World War II, 1939–1945 (part 3)

Rumours of a potential German invasion on Portugal started to die down at the turn of 1942 and 1943. As a result, some part of Polish refugees came to conclusion that a bit longer stay in a friendly, calm, lovely and sunny ‘homeland of Vasco da Gama’ might not be such a bad idea. Their situation was far better than the one of their compatriots in other countries, including in neutral states. And so, many refugees were not particularly keen on leaving, neither to a continuously bombarded England, nor to America, where benefits paid to refugees were not an option any more. In 1943, the Portuguese government authorised a mass transit of Poles who had been released from the Spanish camp Miranda de Ebro as well as from prisons – they would be arriving by trains to the harbour of Vila Real de Santo António, and from there – on British ships towards Gibraltar. This was an evacuation scenario for, among others, Marian Rejewski and Henryk Zygalski, who successfully broke the German cipher machine Enigma. The fact let the Allies win a major advantage during World War II. The number of Poles staying in Portugal fell considerably after the Normandy landings in June 1944.

Overall, the attitude of Portuguese authorities to the interests and institutions of the Republic of Poland, as well as towards Polish refugees, was overwhelmingly sympathetic, or generally correct. Often times a so-called international police (the State Defence and Surveillance Police) would tolerate a protracted stay of Polish citizens and their influx, however they also tried to persuade them to go. When rumour had it Portugal might fall itself victim to invasion, and when there were more and more incoming refugees, the pressure on exiles intensified: those staying illegally or persistently unwilling to go, became targets of police operations, including detention. Some illegal arrivals who were apprehended, were first transported to the Lisbon Aljube prison, and later to the Ericeira camp, or straight on to Ericeira. There were also cases of expulsion to Spain; they concerned above all fugitives who were caught near the border, most of them soldiers that may have later made other attempts to enter Portugal.

A vital question was the provision of health care to Polish refugees. In theory refugee physicians had no authorisation to perform their profession in Portugal, yet in practice when they already did, it was tolerated. It was also their Portuguese doctor-colleagues who wrote prescriptions for them. A prominent figure in this context was Dr Adelaide Constantino Viegas, a physician who came from Mozambique, at the Aid Committee from 1941. She acquired several dozens of phrases in Polish, and therefore she could communicate with her patients. Other important actors for the Polish community in Portugal were catholic priests who took an active part in assisting refugees, including Jews. The highest-ranking clergyman in 1942-1944 was Stanisław Okoniewski, bishop of the Chełmno diocese, who died in Lisbon. An informal pastoral care to the Polish community was provided by father Wojciech Turowski, after the war general of the Pallottine Fathers’ congregation. Polish masses were said mainly in the chapel of Our Lady of Fatima in the church of São Mamede, and in the chapel of Our Lady of Montserrat, built into the arch of the Lisbon aqueduct.

For the Polish government, Lisbon became a place to carry out comprehensive financial operations. Besides, it is from Lisbon that the Polish Refugee Aid Committee in Portugal, the Polish Red Cross Delegate’s Office and Delegation of Polish-American Council organised a dispatch of food parcels to the German-occupied territories. They took use of the local post, which would often come upfront expectations of the Polish institutions. E.g., it set up separate units within post offices where parcels for bulk dispatch were accepted. These Polish units employed local staff. In the beginning, the parcels contained coffee, tea, cocoa, sardines and chocolate. In December 1941, however, the Portuguese authorities banned the export of overseas commodities, which was due to the British pressure, itself the result of Germany blockade.

Thus, the subsequent parcels contained local Portuguese produce only, i.e. sardines, almonds, figs, raisins, dried fruit and juices. The campaign itself was meant to show that the Polish authorities care about their compatriots in the occupied homeland, while the goods normally inaccessible in famine-stricken Poland could be exchanged or sold. Senders were fake. The parcels also included requests for confirmation of receipt, which resulted in thousands of letters coming in from Poland in reply. They were sometimes the only signs that somebody was still alive. The Nazis tended to steal the parcels. As a consequence of the Normandy landings, the post link with Poland got interrupted. The total of 1.5 million parcels were sent home, including by the Polish Red Cross Delegate’s Office – 719,000, and by the Aid Committee – 600,000. Portugal was in fact the only country where such an undertaking was possible on a large scale.


  • Portuguese postal clerks loading parcels into postal sacks at the Lisbon headquarters of the Aid Committee. Between 1941 and 1944 © ZJK
  • Gift handover ceremony: from the Polish-American community to Polish soldiers detained in the Miranda de Ebro camp in Spain. From left: bishop Stanisław Okoniewski, father Wojciech Turowski and Florian Piskorski. Lisbon, between March 1942 and April 1944. © FBK
  • Addressing parcels by Portuguese workers in the parcel department of the Aid Committee. Between July 1942 and 1944. © ZJK
  • Dr Adelaide Constantino Viegas, a physician of the Polish Refugee Aid Committee in Portugal from spring 1941. Lisbon, July 1944. © ZJK
  • The chapel of Our Lady of Montserrat at Rua and Praça das Amoreiras in Lisbon, built into the arch of the aqueduct, where Polish services were regularly held during the war, until June 1942. 5th April 1938. © ANTT
  • Employees of the Polish Refugee Aid Committee in Portugal. Seated from left: Stanislaw Schimitzek and Dr Adelaide Constantino Viegas. Lisbon, July 1944. © ZJK