The 80 member-strong group attending the Society’s Annual Lunch, which took place on January 28th, 2023 at the Riviera Hotel in Carcavelos, enjoyed two first-class talks, and a gourmet buffet second to none. A number of the participants were new to the Society, and the members present spoke numerous mother-tongues. The Portuguese melting-pot is still very much alive today.
What do the figures 10,000/100,000 and the dates 1902/2021 have in common you may ask? The answer should be obvious for those of you present at the Annual Lunch. For those who did not have the pleasure of being there, more clues are needed: for the figures: does the name Aristide de Sousa Mendes ring a bell? And for the dates: the name of Prince Luis d'Orléans-Braganza? No? Still unsure of the correct answers?
The BHSP first welcomed Dra Margarida Magalhaes Ramalho, Archaeologist and Historian extraordinaire, one of three people instrumental in turning, through sheer determination, conviction and hard work, the project of a failed exhibition - worked on for several years - that did not materialize due to a lack of funding, into a fascinating Museum in the Portuguese frontier town of Vilar Formoso, Municipality of Almeida, now known as the Frontier of Peace Museum. Indeed, she was the leading light in the conception and inauguration of this unique place, designed to keep alive the narratives of the stateless people who, having been forced out of their lands and out of their homes, travelled through this, then anonymous, little Portuguese railway village during the WWII years, on what they hoped would be the road to freedom and to a new life away from the threat of mass deportation and extermination in the death camps that were springing up all over fascist Europe.
At first it was thought that Iberia would quickly be overrun by the Germans, under an invasion code-named Operation Felix. If Franco was not hostile to the idea, being a close “friend” of Hitler, Salazar, Portugal's leader, for some time more in sync with Mussolini, wanted nothing to do with such a scheme. The Museum not only explains the historical context but also celebrates those refugees who were the lucky ones, those who did outlive their exodus and the innumerable ordeals that they had to face when millions of others did not survive. In this respect, it is truly a Heritage Museum, for the descendants of the refugees to come back one day to visit, and for us all, lest we forget.
Dra Ramalho's talk, a talk first presented by her in New York when the Frontier of Peace Museum was being promoted, having been inaugurated in 2017, was called The Last Frontier: Portugal During Wartime and was illustrated by black and white photographs that spoke so eloquently of these horrendous times, their poignant effect enhanced even further by quotations from men and women, famous authors or simple refugees, expressing their wonder at being in the land of sunlight – Portugal - and at the same time, their incommensurable pain. Hounded, haunted, behind them lay only the remains of their broken lives - before them a vast unknown of which they wanted nothing. But plod on they must.
Dra Ramalho introduced these heart-rending images whilst giving the audience a quick run-down on events from 1939 onwards, explaining how Portugal, under the impulse of its dictator, Salazar, shifted its position of strict neutrality (trading with both sides) to a kind of imposed compassion as war forced more and more helpless people into exile. Lisbon was, in effect, the only route out of fascist and nazi-occupied Europe and this in itself was a very dangerous and distressing situation to have to be handled by the very man trying to keep Portugal out of the war, an authoritarian who mistrusted foreign ways, who mistrusted democracies, who feared the impact that open-minded, educated cosmopolitan immigrants would have on the more traditional ways of life of his countrymen, who feared the loss of work for his own people and who, all said and done, did not know how to feed and accommodate the 10.000 or more immigrants who had been granted visas by an over-zealous Portuguese diplomat in Bordeaux.
Aristide de Sousa Mendes was a man who professed loud and clear that he wanted to be with God against man rather than be with man against God. The diplomat would pay very dearly for saving many of the 100,000 human beings, who, in those years, arrived legally in Portugal. The actual figures were certainly much higher because many arrived without papers, illegally assisted by underground networks and secret agents and humble countryfolk. Salazar, still recognized today as the great man of figures that he was, knew how explosive the whole situation was for his professed neutrality. Yet, still the refugees kept coming, still they crossed the border at Vilar Formoso, still they were helped on their way by the local people, still they were being given assistance when they arrived in Lisbon and/or a place to bed down further afield until some kind of solution could be worked out by the authorities.
Why were they let into the country in the first place? With hindsight, the policy that was being implemented - despite the paranoia instilled daily into Salazar by his infamous secret police the PIDE - was to gain time until the Axis Powers were defeated, the Allies having finally won the war.
Today, divided as we may feel about the rights and wrongs of the wars being waged around the world and the horrors being endured by the men at war and the civilians in Ukraine, this excellent talk by Dra Ramalho brought home to everybody present how important it is to keep the Frontier of Peace Museum on the map for tourists. It must be visited to recognise the role played by Vilar Formoso in those dark days, to keep our minds focussed on the horrors endured by those forced onto the roads of exile and to keep compassion alive so that many other human beings will be able to look back, in the years to come and say, like those who travelled through Portugal during WWII, we too have survived and are here to tell our story today, thanks to a frontier of peace that was kept open to allow us to cross over into a land of freedom.
The dates of 1902 and 2021 relate firstly to the Diary of a Brazilian Prince, Luis d'Orleans-Braganza who set out to visit the Boer camps in South Africa in June / July 1900, so as to be able to write a comprehensive essay detailing the military exploits, the tactics, the weapons, the strong points and the weak points of both warring parties during the 2nd Boer War being fought between the Boers and the English Army, as witnessed in person by the prince himself. A Memoir from the Boer War, the title of the book in English today, was first published in French, in Paris, upon his return in 1902, after the Peace Treaty was signed in Transvaal at the end of the 2nd Boer War. This essay in French, or Memoir as it is now known, was recently translated, supplemented with footnotes, re-coloured images, and a glossary and sent to be printed by the Fundaçao Dom Manuel II here in Lisbon, in 2021.
The Diary was presented at the lunch by Mr Carel Heringa, in the presence of Dom Duarte, Duke of Bragança, heir to the Portuguese Throne and great-nephew of the author of the original book. Mr Heringa is a retired diplomat from the Dutch Foreign Office who delivered such a fascinating description of how the book came to be written in the first place and how the prince's conclusions and recommendations mirrored the improvements to be applied to British tactics less than two decades later during WWI, that within minutes all copies had been sold out. Rest assured that more will be made available shortly.
Prince Luis d'Orleans-Braganza's travelogue (as it is indeed so much more than just a book on military warfare), contains numerous old, carefully labelled photographs, newspaper cuttings and Puck cartoons. Illustrated are the weapons, the men, and maps of the campaigns. The book highlights the complexities of war, the countries much further afield that were caught up in the attacks and counterattacks, namely Germany and Portugal through their colonies in West and East Africa, the role of Russian humanitarian aid in providing a field hospital, and the presence of military observers from the USA, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, and France. The big guns came from Le Creusot, of course, in France, famous for its weaponry in those days as are its Leclerc tanks, still very much in the News, today
The raison d'être around which gravitated all these interested parties during the 2nd Boer war, notwithstanding the Boers' trek for independence and compelling need for self -government, was the newly discovered gold and diamond mines in the Cape Colony that meant that Britain wanted the whole tip of the Continent for herself, to extract resources, to protect her sea routes to India and the coaling stations so vital to her merchant and navy fleets, and of course to get a train up and running from the Cape to Cairo after the infamous 1890 Ultimatum …
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