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The Story of the Serpa Pinto

The Story of the Serpa Pinto

The ship that carried the Rebbe to safety

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The Serpa Pinto carried thousands of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to safety.
The Serpa Pinto carried thousands of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to safety.

When the Portuguese liner Serpa Pinto weighed anchor in Lisbon on June 12, 1941 (Sivan 17, 5701) and set sail across the Atlantic Ocean, who on board could have guessed that one of the most important pages of Jewish history was in the process of being written?

Eleven days later, on June 23, the 28th day of Sivan, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, son-in-law and future successor of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and his wife, Chaya Mushka, disembarked from the ship in Staten Island, New York, together with hundreds of other refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe.

For the Chabad community all over the world, Sivan 28 became a special occasion for rejoicing. Known as yom ha-bahir, “the inspirational day,” it signifies a turning point in the revival of Judaism in the United States and the entire world.

Unfortunately, we have few details about the future Rebbe’s brief stay in Portugal, with the exception of some notes for what may have been a lecture delivered in Lisbon’s Shaare Tikvah synagogue.1 Literally “Gates of Hope,” the synagogue’s name reflected the significance that the Portuguese capital had assumed as the last port open to refugees fleeing Europe. As a neutral country, Portugal—a place where Jews hadn’t settled in hundreds of years—became an unexpected portal to freedom.2

A page from the Rebbe’s private journal, dated 16 Sivan [1941], Lisbon.
A page from the Rebbe’s private journal, dated 16 Sivan [1941], Lisbon.

A Safe Haven

Tens of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees found temporary refuge in Portugal during World War II.3 This was thanks in great part to Aristides de Sousa Mendes,4 the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France. Mendes issued thousands of Portuguese visas despite official orders not to allow “foreigners of indefinite or contested nationality, the stateless, or Jews expelled from their countries of origin” to enter the country.5

Approximately 40,000 people crossed the Franco-Spanish border between 1940 and 1941, many of them bound for Portugal.

Neutral Portugal seemed like an oasis, far away from bloody battlefields, curfews and air-raid sirens. “In 1940 Lisbon, happiness was staged so that G‑d could believe it still existed,” wrote the famous French writer (and future fighter pilot) Antoine de Saint-Exupery. 6

At night, cafés in the brightly lit streets greeted crowds of cosmopolitan customers, though the atmosphere of freedom was somewhat tempered by the staggering number of spies.7 Pro-Allied and pro-Axis supporters were active in Lisbon, frequently sparring in public and private. Both distributed propaganda and tried to convert the local population to their ideologies.

An article that appeared in The Argus (Melbourne, Australia), Tuesday, May 6, 1941.
An article that appeared in The Argus (Melbourne, Australia), Tuesday, May 6, 1941.

Though the average man on the street supported the Allied forces, got his news from the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) and wore the Royal Air Force insignia on his lapel, Portuguese state officials, police and military commanders counted many Nazi sympathizers among their ranks.

Under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the pro-Nazi elements in the government eventually stemmed the tide of refugees, and anti-Nazi militants, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were arrested and imprisoned by the secret police.8 From 1942 onward, most refugees arriving in Portugal from France did so illegally.9

Fortunately, the future Rebbe and Rebbetzin passed through Lisbon before restrictions grew too great.

Detail: The Rebbe’s name handwritten on a label attached to the wooden trunk which accompanied him from Lisbon to New York.
Detail: The Rebbe’s name handwritten on a label attached to the wooden trunk which accompanied him from Lisbon to New York.

A History of Hate

Despite its status as a neutral country, domestic and international politics in Portugal had a distinctly anti-Semitic tone. This became increasingly apparent during the 1930s, when propaganda from Europe and the United States fed the anti-Semitic views of a significant bloc of local elites.

Since coming into power in 1933, Salazar had sympathized with the National-Socialist regime in Germany, and he actively supported the nationalist camp during the Spanish Civil War, as well as Mussolini’s Fascist government in Italy. Moreover, encouraged by his German advisers, Salazar allowed regular publication of anti-Semitic articles and cartoons in the national press.

Salazar feared that “Jewish communists” could generate social and political unrest.10 Eventually he ordered the evacuation of most of the refugees to cities of “fixed residence” (residencias fixas), located on the Atlantic coast, where the Police of Vigilance and Defense of the State (PVDE) could easily control their activities.

A group of children and adults prepare to set sail in 1943. To the right is Samuel Sequerra, a Portuguese Jew who helped Jewish refugees in both Spain and Portugal.
A group of children and adults prepare to set sail in 1943. To the right is Samuel Sequerra, a Portuguese Jew who helped Jewish refugees in both Spain and Portugal.

Desperate to Escape

Leaving Europe during World War II required tremendous effort, and resources that most would-be emigrants did not possess.

Some well-to-do refugees were able to afford expensive seats aboard Clippers, the “flying ships” of Pan American Airways, which linked America to Europe twice a week.11 But the majority of refugees in Lisbon had only one option: to obtain the necessary visas and secure passage on board one of the Portuguese liners continuously crossing the Atlantic. Havana, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Rio de Janeiro were among the most desired destinations.

In the Portuguese capital, exhausted refugees scrambled to gather the long list of materials necessary to emigrate. They visited understaffed consulates, crowded travel agencies, and waited for long hours in queues to obtain financial and administrative assistance from relief organizations.12

Despite their network of connections, the future Rebbe and Rebbetzin were not exempt from the trials of this process. Before they arrived in Lisbon, they spent a tense period in Nice awaiting special visas that would allow them to leave Europe and come to America.

Finally, on the 20th of Nissan, after intense lobbying on their behalf, they received visas from the United States consul in Marseille. Chassidim in New York with connections in the Portuguese government secured them transit visas, and they passed legally into Portugal.

Crossing the Ocean

Because travel was expensive and dangerous, few ships undertook transatlantic journeys. The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), headquartered in Lisbon, purchased in advance all or most of the passenger space on some of the ships owned by the Colonial Shipping Company (CCN), and distributed it to refugees. The JDC posted between $180,000 and $260,000 as a guarantee for each journey, a huge sum at the time.

Refugees aboard the Serpa Pinto in the port of Lisbon in September 1941 (Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Milton Koch).
Refugees aboard the Serpa Pinto in the port of Lisbon in September 1941 (Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Milton Koch).

Founded in 1922 in Angola, a Portuguese colony in Africa, the CCN owned a dozen liners that could each carry several hundred passengers. Some CCN liners were well known by Jewish refugees, such as the Nyassa, or the Guinea, which sailed to Palestine.

But the most famous CCN ship of all was the liner that carried the future Rebbe and Rebbetzin to safety in June 1941: the Serpa Pinto. During the war years, the Serpa Pinto achieved a kind of celebrity as it transported over 110,000 passengers across the Atlantic Ocean, more than any other Portuguese civilian ship.

The ship made her debut during World War I, when she escorted Allied convoys as the armed British RMS Ebro. After the war, a Yugoslavian company acquired the ship and, as the renamed Princeza Olga, she sailed over a period of five years between the ports of Dubrovnik and Haifa.

In 1940, a few weeks before the Nazis invaded the Balkans, the ship was resold to the CCN and renamed the Serpa Pinto (after a famous 19th-century Portuguese explorer of eastern Africa). She immediately began traversing the Atlantic, reaching ports in North and South America.

Even for neutral ships, crossing the Atlantic Ocean was an extremely dangerous affair.13 Nazi submarines mercilessly hunted Allied vessels, sinking them whenever possible.14

Precious Cargo

Once the future Rebbe and Rebbetzin arrived in Lisbon, passage on a transatlantic vessel was all but secured. At the last moment they received tickets on the sold-out Serpa Pinto, scheduled to set sail on June 12, 1941, and though the threat of torpedoes loomed, the ship reached neutral waters safely and landed in New York City eleven days after leaving Europe.15

Today, long after her 1955 dismantling in a Belgian scrapyard, the Serpa Pinto remains dear in the memories of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. Known as the navio da amizade, the “friendship ship,” she transported precious cargo across dangerous seas as doors rapidly closed for Jewish refugees from Europe.

Footnotes
1.
See The Messiah, the Invalid and the Fish. The location or other details of the lecture are not known, and it ha been suggested that it may have taken place at the Miguel Bombarda Street synagogue, which was more of a gathering place for refugees.
2.
Jews were expelled from Portugal in 1497, five years after the expulsion of the Jews of Spain, and did not return to Portugal until the 19th century.
3.
Avraham Milgram, “Portugal, the Consuls, and the Jewish Refugees, 1938–1941.” Yad Vashem Studies 27 (1999): 123–55. Translated by Anna Shidlo.
4.
Although Sousa Mendes was punished by his government, Yad Vashem honored him after his death as a “Righteous Among the Nations.”
5.
“Circular 14,” issued by the Portuguese government on November 11, 1939.
6.
Many celebrities, artists and writers took refuge in Portugal, among them Bela Bartok, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Leon Feuchtwanger, Arthur Koestler, André Maurois and Erich Maria Remarque, as well as Pierre Dreyfus, the son of Alfred Dreyfus. Royal figures were also numerous: the entire Habsburg family, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and the Count of Paris, among others.
7.
Intelligence agencies abounded in Lisbon at this time, including the United States’ Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Russian NKVD, and the Gestapo.
8.
As an example, Berthold Jacob Salomon, a German-born Jewish journalist and pacifist and a notorious anti-Nazi militant, was kidnapped in 1941 by Portuguese secret police in Lisbon and later sent to Germany, where he died in jail in February 1944.
9.
At the Portuguese borders, fugitives without visas were arrested by the Police of Vigilance and Defense of the State (PVDE), and later incarcerated in the notorious Caxias prison near Lisbon. Their release would take place only after much negotiation between the Portuguese government and foreign organizations.
10.
Salazar himself had Jewish origins, which he tried to conceal.
11.
The first transatlantic flight between Port Washington, New York, and Lisbon occurred on June 29, 1939. They would fly throughout the entire war.
12.
The numerous relief organizations then operating in Lisbon deserve special mention. They did extraordinary work, providing refugees with much-needed supplies and immigration assistance, under extremely difficult conditions. Some of the most active and well-known international relief agencies operating at this time were HICEM (an amalgamation of the American Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and two other Jewish relief organizations), the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the International Red Cross, the Quakers, the War Refugee Board, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and the COMASSIS (the Portuguese Commission for Assistance to Jewish Refugees, founded before the war by the Lisbon Jewish community).
13.
Winston Churchill stated that “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-Boat peril.” German submarines endangered the Allied war effort to such an extent that in December 1940, Britain, which depended heavily on overseas sources for food and supplies, was threatened by starvation because of submarine action. To announce their neutrality and protect their passengers, all Portuguese ships had their names emblazoned on both sides of their hulls in enormous letters alongside the Portuguese flag, and were lit at night with powerful floodlights.
14.
One of the most tragic events concerning the Serpa Pinto occurred in May 1944. A German U-Boat halted the floodlit Philadelphia–bound ship at midnight, about 600 miles northeast of Bermuda. All 385 passengers and crew were ordered to transfer to the lifeboats, while the Germans radioed headquarters in Berlin: “To torpedo or not to torpedo ship Serpa Pinto?” Finally, after nine hours of drifting on the open sea, the panic-stricken passengers were allowed to re-embark. Unfortunately, three people, including a 16-month-old Jewish baby from Poland, drowned while returning to the ship. All the other passengers made it safely to Philadelphia.
15.
Jacobs, Mendel, “Living with the Rebbe: 28 Sivan” (2010).
Ilan Braun is a retired wildlife conservationist and journalist who has lectured in Europe and Israel. He studied and lived in Israel, US, Australia and Europe. He is presently preparing a book on the clandestine 1946 aliyah of a group of Holocaust survivors from Italy.
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Thomas O.Hecht Montreal March 26, 2017

I was on (age 12) the SS Serpa Pinto from mid November to end December 1941 (Lisboa to New NewYork via Casablanca, the Azores, Bermuda, Ciudad Trujillo,Havana,Vera Crus, Ellis Island/NewYork Montreal and now in 2017 I am spending our Winter months in Florida. Keep well my fellow passengers. Thomas O.Hecht Reply

Paula Kashtan MC LEAN April 13, 2017
in response to Thomas O.Hecht:

My mother and her family were on the Serpa Pinto with you in November - December 1941, and they also ended up in Montreal. Interesting to read about where the ship stopped. Thank you! Reply

Andrew PHILADELPHIA November 18, 2016

My grandfather was on this ship on the same June 1941 voyage, named Italo Liebman, from Milan by way of Tangier. Reply

Miriam Frank London September 13, 2016

I too was on the Serpa Pinto, aged 5, with my mother, on the same voyage described by O Hecht! We boarded it in Casablanca and got off in Vera Cruz, and on to Mexico where we lived for the next 6 years. It would be interesting to correspond with you, O Hecht, in Montreal! I now live in London, UK.
Reply

Thoimas O. Hecht Montreal Qc. July 7, 2016

I was on the SS Serpa Pinto in mid November 1941, on to Casablanca, the Azores, stopped by a German Submarine, stopped by a British Destroyer, taken to Hamilton Bermuda, then to Ciudad Trujillo, Havana, (On the day of Pearl Harbour) Vera Cruz, Mexico and New York arriving on December 27,and on by train to Montreal arriving December 31/1941 at 9.30 PM.
It was a long haul from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia which I left on September 15,1939 Reply

Mary California March 7, 2016

I am doing genealogy research for my cousin in Mexico, whose father escaped from Poland and came to Mexico on the Serpa Pinto with many other refugees. His last name was Wiasowski. I do have and article scanned from a Mexican newspaper in 1941, which includes photographs. I can be reached via the editor if anybody wants a copy. Reply

Ralph Moratz Panorama City September 2, 2015

Bill Graham and I crossed the Atlantic on the Serpa Pinto on the Sept 1941 voyage. His name then was Wolfgang Grajonca. Bill Graham is known world wide as the famous concert promoter of the 1960s to 1990s at the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco. Right now there is an exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles celebrating Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution. Reply

VG Los Angeles July 28, 2014

Very informative posting.Thank you. However, there are few minor inaccuracies. For instance, it states in footnote 6: "Many celebrities, artists and writers took refuge in Portugal, among them Bela Bartok, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Leon Feuchtwanger, Arthur Koestler, André Maurois and Erich Maria Remarque, as well as Pierre Dreyfus" In fact, they did not, they managed to obtain transit visas and stayed in Lisbon for few days waiting for the scheduled sail across Atlantic. Most of listed here (except for A.Maurois and Remarque) and many other refugees (Werfel, H.Mann, H.Arendt among them) reached Lisbon due to tremendous efforts by Varian Fry in Marseille. Till recently, Varian Fry was the only American citizen listed as righteous at Yad Vashem.
Quite intriguing that M.Chagall with his wife Bella seem to arrive in New York by the same ship.
Reply

יהושע שמחה סלומון July 11, 2014

What great comments to this article. They are about as good as the article itself!
I live in Baltimore, and I know an older woman here who is an incredible person. She is a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, and had yechidus both with the Rebbe and with the Fridecker Rebbe, when he came to New York. Although her family was not Lubavitch, her husband's family was. His family was told to leave Europe with the Fridecker Rebbe or they would never get out. And so they did. They had emunah that because the Friedecker Rebbe was on the boat, it would be safe from u-boats and make the journey safely across the Atlantic.
She has many other stories, most of which I have yet to learn!
A gut Shabbos Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY June 26, 2014

Let it be known that in the mid thirties the Rabbi resided in Paris, davened in a shtibel were he befriended my father Shmiel Blutreich. Can you visualize two frum jews playing tennis in Paris? Must have been a sight. My father, rip, always had fond memories of his new friend. Reply

Anonymous FOREST HILLS, .Y. June 25, 2014

Very interesting! I am a survivor and traveled with the Serpa Pinto from Lisbon to S Domingo from November 1941 to December 6th 1941 and landed in Ciudad Trujillo safely and every tired, thank G-d together with my parents survived the war years there. Reply

Fruma Delray Beach, FL June 25, 2014

Footnote 6 lists the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as taking refuge in Portugal. They were hardly refugees; They were serious admirers of Hitler and didn't stop their support until Germany attacked England. In 1953-56 they used to come into Roosevelt Hospital in New York once a year for routine physical exams; they would occupy the hospital's VIP suite. I was a hematology technician at that hospital and would normally have drawn their blood for routine testing, except they specified they didn't wish to be handled by Jewish personnel. (They had their own physician.) Reply

NORMAN HAUPTMAN NEW ROCHELLE June 24, 2014

As a NYC cab driver in 1970, a JFK airport passenger asked me to drive him and his friend to 770 Eastern Parkway, the 20th anniversary of Rebbe's appointment.

Israel Is The Light Unto The Nations Reply

Chavah Kwiatkowska Latvia June 23, 2014

Thank you very much! Reply