Teaching the Holocaust in Portugal


Teaching the Holocaust in Portugal can provide a different perspective than that of most European countries. For one thing, historic anti-Semitism in Portugal resulted in the expulsion of Jews during the Inquisition. On the other, Portugal was neutral during World War II, allowing tens of thousands of Jews to escape from the Nazi genocide.

Both themes were important to the seminar, Oct. 5-8, in Lisbon, organized by The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI) and Memoshoa, a Portuguese NGO that focuses on Holocaust education.

The topic of rescue featured the heroic actions of Aristides de Sousa Mendez, a Portuguese diplomat in Bordeaux who, against the orders of his government, issued about 10,000 transit visas to Portugal for Jewish refugees. Without these, they would almost surely have perished by Nazi genocide.

“The actions of Sousa Mendez provide a powerful example of moral distinction at a time when governments, including that of the US, were placing obstacles to the emigration of Jews from the Nazi killings,” said Arthur Berger, a member of the TOLI board and, himself, a former diplomat in the State Department. “We owe him, and others like him, a debt of gratitude,” he added.


Sousa Mendez, who was recalled by his government and drummed out of the foreign office, was the first diplomat to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.  He only received vindication and recognition in Portugal in 1988.

For the Portuguese teachers, coming from all over the country and the Azores, the seminar probed the nature of anti-Semitism, prejudice, and contemporary issues of immigration and minorities in Europe.

David Field, Chairman of the TOLI board of directors, opened the working sessions, noting that TOLI was pleased to partner with Memoshoa in Portugal and expand its seminars in Europe, now in eight countries. Esther Mucznik, a leader of the small Lisbon Jewish community, distinguished historian and President of Memoshoa, provided an overview of the Holocaust in Europe and the dangers of rising anti-Semitism and extremism today. There was a compelling video testimony by Holocaust survivor Assia Raberman, second generation by Mario Zilberberg of Memoshoa and presentation of Portugal and the Holocaust by Prof. Irene Pimentel of Nova University.

Oana Nestian Sandu, TOLI European Director, conducted workshops on human rights, prejudice and active citizenship. Antonio Martins of Memoshoa was co-facilitator.Teachers brought best practices to the seminar in a team-based approach. They left the seminar with a concrete action plan to work with their students and put in practice what they learned.

The seminar was hosted by the local municipal borough of Lumiar, whose President andMP, Pedro Delgado Alves, welcomed the teachers and international delegation. Also speaking at the opening event was Israel Ambassador Rafael Gamzou, US Embassy official Todd Miyahira.

Harry D. Wall is a member of the TOLI board.


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