Under Strange Skies

It is now certainly common that Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in Germany in January of 1933, and the spread of Nazi domination to Austria and Czechoslovakia, launched a massive human exodus from Central Europe—the departure of thousands upon thousands of refugees desperate to escape vehement persecution in their homelands. Nearly a half-million persons, the majority of them Jews, sought asylum, first in neighboring European countries, Palestine, and the United States, and then, when these countries increasingly barricaded their doors, in whatever land would accept them.

Portugal, and especially its capital, the important Atlantic port city, Lisbon, is one of the lesser-chronicled asylum/transit stations in Europe—a surprising oversight given the fact that more than 50,000 (and perhaps as many as 200,000) refugees passed through it, including famed writers and journalists Arthur Koestler. Alfred Döblin, Erika and Heinrich Mann, Hermann Grab, Hans Sahl, and others who refer to it in published accounts and memoirs. The country ruled since 1927 by the dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, had remained a bystander in the growing European strife of the 1930’s, and was a curious “neutral” during the war—sympathetic to Axis/Fascist ideology yet also economically bound to Great Britain, and sufficiently tolerated by both sides so that its ships managed to criss-cross the Atlantic relatively undisturbed by submarines and naval interdictions.

Under Strange Skies is an evocative and poetic meditation on the Central European refugee experience and sense of transient dispersion in Lisbon and its surroundings. It is a moving, winningly modest, and humane exploration of place, time, and rootlessness transmitted over generations, from refugee grandparents who came to Portugal from Germany (and who decided to settle there after the Nuremberg Race Laws were implemented in 1936), to parents, to grandson. Few refugees remained in Portugal after the war ended, but Blaufuks’ grandparents, unlike so many others, chose neither to move elsewhere nor to return to Germany. Growing up on the fifth floor of the same building where his grandparents lived in Lisbon, Blaufuks was immersed as a child in a universe of traces from that refugee experience—a world of allusions, photographs, a few material items, recipes, customs, and memories which were not his own but to which he came to feel indelibly drawn and connected.
Employing some of these traces, as well as old news- reels, home movies, excerpts from refugee memoirs and writings, family accounts, and archival materials from Europe and the Americas, Blaufuks provides us with a rich visual and spoken documentary mosaic of a significant moment in 20th-century Jewish history.

The result—his beautiful, gentle film—is testament to an important yet often overlooked truth. Despite the incompleteness of intergenerational transmission, despite its failure to capture and convey experience through memory, transmission is surrounded by values and lessons that transcend its inherent limitations—values and lessons that can indeed be passed on from person to person, and from generation to generation over time.

Leo Spitzer, Professor of History at Dartmouth College.