Meeting Date: 14 June 2013

Prepared By: Susan Weaver


Lisbon Route

Here is a movie trivia question for you:

In one of the most memorable movie scenes of all times star-crossed lovers Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) part as Rick sends her off into the foggy night to join her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) on a flight from Casablanca. Rick sacrifices the life they might have had together to ensure Ilsa's safety and that of her husband, a World War II Czech resistance leader being hunted by the Nazi Gestapo. Where were Ilsa and Victor headed?

You must remember this! It was Lisbon!

Ilsa and Victor, fleeing from the clutches of the Gestapo, set off on one avenue of what was known as the Lisbon Route. In real life, an estimated one-hundred thousand others used the Lisbon Route between 1933 and 1944.

If you'll fast forward to minute 1:09 of this YouTube clip of the opening sequence of Casablanca, narrator Lou Marcelle will describe the path through Morocco some followed to reach Lisbon.

Casablanca Opening: 2:15 min


There were other paths from Marseilles through the Pyrenees, as well. The accompanying map shows the overland Lisbon Route. Avenues opened and closed as conditions and bureaucratic requirements changed. But all paths eventually led to Lisbon because of Portugal's declaration of neutrality. While Spain, too, claimed to be neutral, in practice Franco favored the Germans because of the assistance they provided him during the Spanish Civil War. Lisbon was the last port to offer passenger service to the Americas.

Getting to Lisbon from Marseilles was no easy thing to accomplish. It was in fact a bureaucratic nightmare requiring an exit visa from Vichy France, an entrance visa from Spain which only allowed transport through the country, and an entrance visa from Portugal which, later in the war, was only granted if the refugee already had a ticket on a scheduled flight or ship leaving Lisbon. Those who could not get these documents hiked over the Pyrenees from France to Spain or stowed away on ships heading to Lisbon via Gibraltar.

For those who managed to get there, Lisbon provided a welcome - if somewhat deceptive - respite from the danger and deprivations of war. Journalists Reynolds and Eleanor Packard described the scene in their book Balcony Empire: Fascist Italy at War:

"We never realized how miserable we had been in warring Italy...until we arrived in Lisbon, where gaiety, plenty and brilliant lights made the somberness of blacked-out, half-starved Europe we had left seem all the more dismal by comparison."

The Packards and their famous colleagues, Erik Sevareid, Edward R. Murrow and Ernie Pyle, continued reporting on the war from Lisbon after censorship made it impossible elsewhere in Europe. And early on Lisbon may have seemed a safe enough harbor that many felt no urgency to leave, but as the war intensified the appearance of being out of the fray in Lisbon could be deceiving because the city was awash with spies of all stripes and allegiances. Eric Sevareid wrote in The Living Age (January, 1941) that he knew within ten minutes of arriving at the Palace Hotel bar in Estoril, 15 minutes outside of Lisbon, that he was in "the espionage center of WWII." He described Lisbon as "an international clearing house for secret information," and attributed Portugal's continued wartime freedom to the useful role it played in that regard. But given the situation, the prudent knew to keep a low profile and strove get out away from the continent as soon as possible.

Spies and double agents sympathetic to the Germans were well aware of the enemies list of intellectuals, writers and artists kept by the Gestapo, and would alert the Gestapo when someone on the list was spotted in Lisbon. Hence it was not uncommon for people to make it to Lisbon only to be kidnapped off the street or out of their hotels by the Gestapo. Working during the war as a British Intelligence Officer (MI6), novelist Graham Greene was tasked with identifying Axis agents at work in Portugal - a job which gave him the deep understanding of spy craft that breathed life into the spy stories he later wrote.


Photo credit: Harris & Ewing, photographer Source: U.S. Library of Congress. Creative Commons license.


Those who were lucky enough to have the connections and the means to afford an airline ticket booked flights on the Pan Am American Clipper. For others, passage by ship was their only option. Up until December 1941, American Export Lines regularly ran four passenger ships out of Lisbon. Spanish and Portuguese ships would also carry passengers to the Americas, but the accommodations could be grim and the ticket prices rose as the war went on. Fares are recorded as having ranged from $1,200 (approximately $19,000 in today's dollars) for first class cabins to $160 ($2,500 in 2013 dollars) for space in a third class dormitory shoe-horned in what had previously been cargo holds. Those that were unable to book passage languished.


Photo: The Excambion, one of four ships operated by American Export Lines to carry refugee passengers between Lisbon and New York 1940-41. Credit:


Many of the people who found their way out of Europe via the Lisbon Route did so with the help of Varian Fry, an American journalist working under the auspices of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), a group formed by wealthy US citizens in New York to facilitate the escape of intellectuals, artists and writers they believed to be black-listed by the Nazis and therefore in mortal danger. Fry's assistance was extended far beyond the ERC list, however, and he became the go-to person to arrange passage, working first in Marseilles and later from Lisbon after his expulsion from Vichy France as an undesirable who helped Jews and anti-Nazis. While Fry sought out the 200 people the ERC had sent him to save, other refugees sought him out. Whether on the ERC list or not, if they needed money, travel documents or tickets, Fry supplied them. When no conventional means were available, Fry helped organize other modes of escape - treks across the Pyrenees, masquerades as defeated, displaced French soldiers. Among the famous people Fry helped along the Lisbon Route were Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz, Marcel Duchamps, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel. His efforts earned him the sobriquet "The Artists' Schindler." But for every famous person he rescued there were hundreds of others he aided as well. He helped more than two thousand people find their way to safety.

The next time you watch Casablanca consider where Ilsa and Victor are heading, and imagine what is in their future. Will it be a flight on the Pan Am Clipper? Or a voyage on the Excambion? Do they reach a safe haven or are the Gestapo hot on their heels? You can write your own ending.

You might also pause for a moment in honor of World Refugee Day (June 20) to reflect on the Lisbon Route, the people who took it and those who aided them. As noted on the calendar of the June issue of the Rotarian, "There are over 43.7 million refugees around the world. Learn more at"


If you like to know more about the Lisbon Route, you can check out these sources:

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