We left Italy September 1940 going by ship from Genoa to Barcelona, which now seems now like a nervy thing to do because Italy and France were at war at the time. Sure enough, we found out eventually that on a subsequent trip the same ship was torpedoed and all lives lost. The passage wasn’t very long, perhaps two days and nights, and, in our case, was uneventful. However, when we arrived in Barcelona we got a scare. The Spaniards were not letting in any males under 40 who had a Polish passport. The reason was an accommodation to the Germans, to prevent them from joining the Free Polish Army. My father was 41 and we were allowed in, barely. However a couple who were friends of my parents were below that age and were denied entry. The setting was quite frightening because Spain had just gotten out of their Civil War and the harbor at Barcelona was full of the wrecks of bombed ships.
We had a transit visa for Portugal and to get there we first took a train to Madrid. I have a vague memory that there was not much food during the trip. We had a full day in Madrid and there we had very few choices in the restaurants. I went off on my own to see the Prado, but it turned out to be closed for some reason. Much later, when I went back to Madrid, I also failed to get into the Prado because Franco was throwing a party for someone. On my third try, years later, I finally made it.
We then took another train to the border. We entered Portugal at night and, not surprisingly, had another frontier crisis. Our Portuguese visa would be expiring too soon, so we were sent back to the Spanish border town of Badajoz to find the Portuguese consul and get the visa renewed. That took more than a day because of some holiday, but we eventually succeeded. In the meantime, we were visited by the Fascist militia, the Falange, and were told to get out or else we would be sent away. I remember that the Falangistas who came were dressed in black suits and that they turned their lapel to show us their shield. Once again, we did all right, got the visa, and entered Portugal. When we first entered that country at night, I must have been quite sleepy. When I first heard someone speak Portuguese, a terrible doubt entered my mind. Portuguese has an abundance of “sh’s” and other soft sounds, quite unlike Italian or Spanish. What I heard didn’t sound like a Romance language at all, so I asked my father if by mistake we had gone east instead of west and entered Yugoslavia instead. I was aware that getting into Portugal was a big step towards safety, but perhaps I was too spooked to believe it.
Lisbon at night, as it may have appeared to me in 1940.
When the train finally arrived in Lisbon, I had a joyful moment. The city was fully lit up and looked beautiful to me. This had a profound and dramatic effect, after the blackouts I had lived with for some six months in Italy. It seemed that I had entered Paradise. I didn’t have any reason to change my mind because soon I was surrounded by gentle and caring people. We moved into a pension that was home for quite a few single Portuguese men. They practically adopted me and showered me with kindness. They took me to soccer games, and at least once to a bullfight. (Portuguese bullfights are less brutal than the Spanish ones, as the bull is not killed.) One of the tenants worked in an out-of-town newspaper shop downtown. He let me come there to read the Italian magazines.
I didn’t go to school there, probably because we didn’t think we would stay in Lisbon for long. We were just waiting for transport, but this being wartime, there were no ships going directly from Portugal to Ecuador. So, we had to find transport to the States. We did get a transit visa to the U.S. quite quickly, but space on ships going there was scarce. I managed to make friends with a local boy. We got along well until somehow the issue of the birthplace of Christopher Columbus came up. I may have told him that I saw the house of his birth in Genoa. He adamantly and emphatically replied that this wasn’t possible, because Columbus had been Portuguese! Other than the kindness of the people, I have few other memories of Lisbon. I know that rumors were rampant among the refugees. It seemed incomprehensible that Hitler wouldn’t invade Spain and Portugal, except that it might not be worth his trouble. The joke going around was that if Hitler decided to invade Spain, he would simply send them a letter saying “You are invaded.” For Portugal, a postcard would suffice.
Finally, after waiting for three months, we got passage on a Portuguese ship. It was called Serpa Pinto, the name of a famed Portuguese explorer, but it was hardly a grand liner. On the contrary, it was a converted mixed passenger/freight ship, where the holds had been outfitted with five tiers of bunks for the third class passengers. My father and I slept there, but my mother shared a second-class cabin with three other women. The passage was rough and we had to strap ourselves into the bunks at night, else we would have fallen out. An obese elderly gypsy man had asthma attacks every night and sat up making loud noises. Another passenger got badly hurt when thrown against a bulkhead. Conditions got so bad that when the ship arrived in New York City, the Red Cross took over and helped the sick and injured passengers. The next stop was Ellis Island.
Years later, I wrote the following:
“We began a three-week long Elderhostel program on the Jewish Heritage of the Iberian Peninsula with a weeklong trip to various small towns in Portugal, then visited Cordoba, Toledo, and Girona, all notable sites in Iberian Jewish history. In each place, we heard lectures by local professors and visited a number of synagogues, juderías, and tourist sites. I found that becoming immersed in matters that happened over 500 years ago is not a predictable endeavor. I was unsure of my reactions to events that occurred so long ago, laden with both misfortunes and happy times. How does one identify with one’s predecessors? (Never mind that I am Ashkenazi.) Does one imagine being one of them, garbed in mediaeval clothes, musing about abstract religious matters, anxious about survival, tormented about conserving the faith? Who would I have been? A modest craftsman, an early day professor (perhaps a botanist?), a true believer, an apostate? Would I have been living during one of the better times, when Jews could walk proudly through the narrow streets, feeling that they truly belonged in Sepharad? Or would I have been cowering in fear from the enemy of the day, the fanatical Muslim or the frenzied Christian, hell-bent on forcibly converting as many of us as possible to their faith? I felt fear in me when I learned of the hundreds or thousands of Jews who stood at the quay in Lisbon awaiting ships to take them away. When the ships didn’t arrive within a few days, they were forcibly baptized. Four and a half centuries later, in 1940, as a twelve-year-old I stood on such a quay with my parents, on our way from Italy to Ecuador. Our ship did come.”