A leisurely, story-filled account of life in Nazi-occupied Europe’s last open door to freedom.
During World War II, the port city of Lisbon, in neutral Portugal, was the destination for a flood of refugees fleeing the Nazi terror who hoped to make their way to the United States and elsewhere. An estimated 100,000 or more refugees passed through the old-fashioned European capital, writes Weber (American Studies/Univ. of Notre Dame; News of Paris: American Journalists in the City of Light Between the Wars, 2006, etc.), often waiting for weeks or months for a place on a freighter, fishing boat or plane. At the same time, reporters, diplomats, spies, military leaders and others shuttled in and out freely, and the formerly sleepy city became a frenzied bazaar, charged with energy, conspiratorial feeling and moral uncertainty. With its abundant food and gambling, the city had the bright air of prewar Paris. But rumors of an imminent Nazi invasion of defenseless Portugal were constant, and refugees searching for visas and transport feared their funds might run out. Lisbon had an unreality about it, said French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The city played at happiness, and exiles played at clinging to their past identities. Based on newspaper accounts as well as diaries and letters, Weber’s book brings the wartime city to life, tracing the machinations of agents and double agents in bars and hotels; Varian Fry’s work on behalf of the International Rescue Committee to find safe passage for artists and intellectuals; and secret meetings where belligerents exchanged information. With the war’s end, Prime Minister Antonio Salazar’s authoritarian government began promoting the country as a postwar tourist destination.
An engaging but overlong chronicle of a city that was “a way into Europe as well as a way out.”