On 23 November Professor Marion Kaplan delivered a fascinating talk at the Alfred Wiener Holocaust Memorial Lecture, hosted by Gresham College in London. She spoke to a full and captivated audience on the subject of ‘Lives in Limbo: Jewish Refugees in Portugal, 1940-1945’.

Professor Kaplan vividly described the experiences of the tens of thousands of Jews who pursued this perilous but exceptional escape route out of Nazi-occupied Europe at the height of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Her project began with a treasure trove of previously lost letters and postcards held in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York. The letters had been addressed to Lisbon and intended for relatives and friends of Jewish refugees who had reached safety in the United States. The letters were to be conveyed via the American Joint Distribution Committee but, for unknown reasons, never reached their intended recipients.

This discovery opened an as-yet unfamiliar world filled with hope and anxiety, populated by fleeing families facing endless perils and struggles with bureaucracy. Kaplan shared the stories of exhausting journeys across the Pyrenees and war-torn Spain, and dangerous crossings of multiple borders; she also evoked the anxious waits in queues for official approvals, and the simultaneously ennui and comfort of days spent eking out a cheap coffee among other Jewish refugees in Lisbon cafes.

You can now listen to Marion’s lecture in full, and read the transcript of her talk via our website. As a member of the audience, I was struck by the strong echoes today. Why are many are quick to assume that safe legal routes are available to refugees, and that those fleeing ‘illegally’ do so by choice, when we know that so many refugees in the past have faced treatment that is arbitrary, unjust, and in some cases fatal? Why do so many people struggle to comprehend the humanity of refugees and their experiences? It is notable despite the ease of appreciating other cultures, we often fail to do so even when that culture is being sustained with impressive resilience in the case of extreme hardship.

The hundreds of family collections held in The Wiener Holocaust Library contain many undiscovered stories not unlike those brought to light by Professor Kaplan. To highlight one item with a similar resonance, we hold the papers from a hostel for refugee children based in Highgate, London, created in March 1939 by the paediatrician Bernhard Schlesinger. Among these papers Is a short, typed ‘Newspaper’ created by the children in the hostel. In the text, they talk about the differences between their own habits and characters, but emphasis how they feel united by their experiences.

Like the thousands of refugees that awaited a terrifyingly uncertain fate in Lisbon, huddled together in cafes, these children kept their sense of dread at bay through small acts of solidarity. We could all do well to learn from them, and other refugee stories, today.

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