Thursday, January 23, 2020

Marion Kaplan's "Hitler’s Jewish Refugees"

Marion Kaplan is Skirball Professor of Modern Jewish History at New York University. She is the author of Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany and a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Kaplan applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Hitler’s Jewish Refugees: Hope and Anxiety in Portugal, and reported the following:
Page 99 gives only a tiny peek into what the book is about. That page tells us about the relationships of Jewish refugees to Portuguese citizens. The first paragraph notes that the Nazis tried to poison those relationships by scaring the Portuguese, claiming that when the Nazis won the war, they would punish Jews and friendly Portuguese as “anti-Nazis.” Still, American organizations, other observers, and the refugees themselves found the Portuguese to be very welcoming to Jews. This page also describes the transitory nature of Jewish and Portuguese companionship, since most refugees saw Portugal as a temporary respite, hoping to cross the Atlantic as quickly as they could, leaving Hitler’s Europe behind them. Still, some refugees stayed, and the last paragraph tells about some marriages that occurred between Jews and Portuguese non-Jews.

The page 99 test doesn’t really work for my book which focuses on the emotional history of Jews fleeing to and remaining in Portugal during the war. In other words, page 99 offers a glimpse into Jewish-Portuguese relationships and is part of a section entitled “The Exasperations and Consolations of Refugee Life” – friendly Portuguese being part of the “consolations.” But that is not the essence of the book (see Table of Contents).

My book tries to answer several questions about Jewish refugees in Portugal: How did they get there? What did they do there? How did they make ends meet? Most importantly, how did Jews react emotionally to their frightening odysseys from impending doom to fragile safety and their fearful wait in an oddly peaceful purgatory. Fleeing Nazi armies during World War II, between 40,000 and 80,000 Jews headed toward Portugal. My chapters focus on the borders refugees nervously crossed; the consulates and aide organization lines they “waited, waited, and waited” on, the smoky cafés they uneasily inhabited, finding solace with other refugees from a variety of nations; and the “fixed residences,” distant fishing villages where some were incarcerated. These sites caused emotional reactions: sometimes feelings of anguish, other times relief, and often both. Throughout their stay, refugees dreaded Hitler’s troops at the French/Spanish border, knew that the Portuguese government wanted them to move on, and feared the Portuguese police, while taking comfort in the kindness of Portuguese citizens.

The book also shows how age made a striking difference in the ways children and adults reacted to their losses and displacement: children and young people could treat crossing borders for example, as an adventure even as their elders considered such dislocations nightmares. Gender, too, produced varied reactions. Although men and women faced similar insecurities and material losses, men had lost more in the public sphere (where only younger women had joined the labor force) and perceived their losses as greater. More generally, refugees had suffered drastic economic and social decline: Hannah Arendt saw “parables of increasing self-loss.” She observed that many of these refugees had “felt entitled from their earliest childhood” to the "accoutrements of middle-class status: “They are failures in their own eyes if this standard cannot be kept any longer.... They constantly struggle with despair of themselves.” She explained: “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in the world.”
Learn more about Hitler’s Jewish Refugees at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue