“God bless Vilar Formoso for the compassion it had towards those foreigners 73 years ago. May I have the privilege of being able to offer that goodness to everyone during my life.” – Henry Galler (survivor of the “Cursed Train”)
IWP members may recall the October 2016 Writers’ Corner article about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul-general in Bordeaux, France who, at the onset of World War II, saved thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazi regime by issuing them with visas, contrary to instructions from Salazar’s regime.
In November 2016, architect Luísa Pacheco Marques and historian Margarida de Magalhães Ramalho did a presentation for IWP at the Cascais Cultural Centre on the Vilar Formoso project, a memorial and museum to remind us how Portugal welcomed World War II refugees and honouring Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
I am glad to tell Writers’ Corner readers that the “Vilar Formoso: Frontier of Peace” project has been successfully completed. The museum opened In August 2017 and Portuguese President Dr Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, in his inaugural address, referred to the Sousa Mendes’ legacy, never to give up the fight for fundamental human values.
Vilar Formoso is a town in the municipality of Almeida on the A25 right on the border between Portugal and Spain. As one of the main crossings between these two countries, Vilar Formoso is no stranger to the plight of refugees. During the 15th century it opened its door to approximately 30 000 Jews who had been expelled from neighbouring Spain by kings Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile.
For this project, two unused warehouses located on the square in front of the Vilar Formoso railway station were chosen. A fitting place as this was where thousands of refugees entered Portugal in 1940, most with visas issued by Aristides de Sousa Mendes. The project was initiated by the Almeida Municipality with EEA grants and most money coming from Norway. Architect Luisa Pacheco Marques was in charge of the design and refurbishing of the buildings and historian Margarida Magalhães led the research and investigation, discovering documents that had never before been published and tracking surviving refugees some of whom came to the opening of the museum. The Sousa Mendes Foundation supplied pictures of the families that received visas, along with artefacts such as passports and visas, including an original doll.
The museum is split into several nuclei, each highlighting the different aspects of the refugees’ nightmarish flight from the Nazis. From photos that depicted “gente como nós” (people just like us) in their daily lives in a normal society, the visitor is led to other areas that show how they endured harsh and brutal conditions during their flight, with nearly unsurmountable obstacles. Obtaining visas, ignominious public treatment, precarious transport conditions and scarcity of food were amongst some of the problems encountered. And the fear of arrest, deportation or being split from their families pervaded their daily lives. The 6 exhibits are aptly titled “People Like Us”, “The Beginning of the Nightmare”, “The Trip”, “Vilar Formoso: Peace Frontier”, “Around Portugal” and “The Departure”.
The dispersion throughout Portugal involved many towns. Once formalities were concluded they were sent to Caldas da Rainha, Ericeira, Lousã de Cima, Porto and Lisbon. Estoril-Sintra-Cascais attracted the more affluent “refugees” who did not necessarily enter the country through Vilar Formoso. Filmmaker Max Ophuls, Nobel literature laureate Maurice Maeterlink, aviator and author of “Le Petit Prince” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and art collector Marguerite Guggenheim were amongst the well-known refugees who lived in hotels and houses in Monte Estoril/Cascais. Marguerite Guggenheim remembers walking from Monte Estoril to Cascais to go swimming. She stated that the puritanical local population did not always approve of their swimming apparel and its “inappropriateness” solicited fines aplenty.
One of the sections tells us the story of 300 Jews from Luxembourg, who arrived by rail. While waiting for a decision to be made about their admission to Portugal, they were locked up in the “cursed train” for over a week with no basic sanitary conditions or food. Eventually they were fed by the Red Cross and by the Vilar Formoso population. Their train had been escorted by Gestapo agents who, ignoring Portugal’s neutrality entered the country, refused to hand in their weapons and clashed with the Portuguese border police when arrested, causing a diplomatic scandal. Eventually the train and its refugees were refused entry and sent back to Spain and from there to Bayonne in France. Not knowing what to do with them, the German camp officer suggested that they make themselves disappear and so they did in June 1941. In 2013, Mrs Rachel Wolf who had been in the Cursed Train, was received by the Almeida municipality. In 2017, Mr Henry Galler and three other survivors from the same train came to the inauguration of the museum. Two other refugees and several descendants were also at the opening. Their testimonies are now on display at the museum.
Alternatively, other refugees managed to enter Vilar Formoso and found some peace. No wonder this little town justifiably earned its name as the peace frontier.
Although the Vilar Formoso museum is quite far from the Lisbon/Cascais/ Sintra areas, it is well worth a visit … lest we forget. Please note that it is closed on Mondays. It is open on Tuesday from 14:00 to 18:00 and Wednesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 12:30 and 14:00 to 18:00.
On Monday 14th of May, the local TV station RTP2 will show a documentary on the museum at 23:00 called “Visita Guiada”. Although in Portuguese, most will understand the context, as these events are an important element of Portugal’s and the world’s history.
Vilar Formoso- Frontier of peace by Margarida Ramalho Câmara Municipal de Almeida, novembro de 2014 ‧ isbn: 978-989-99229-0-7
O Comboio do Luxemburgo- Margarida Magalhães Ramalho e Irene Flunser Pimentel Publisher A Esfera dos Livros, setembro de 2016 isbn: 9789896267780
Lisbon a city during wartime, Margarida Magalhães Ramalho, published by Imprensa nacional – Casa da Moeda isbn 978-972-27-2040-3