We live in a world full of displaced people. War, famine, disease, and economics have forced millions if not billions of people to leave their homes. While some are fortunate enough to be allowed to immigrate to new countries where they have the chance to start over again, others end up in the squalor and helplessness of refugee camps. Trapped in bureaucratic limbo as no country is willing to accept them and unable to go home, they live on hand outs and take shelter in anything from tents to edifices made of scrap.
Limbo or purgatory can't be any worse than the fate of those doomed to spend their days whiling away the hours awaiting word that they can return to their homes or by some miracle be allowed into another country. If that isn't a troubling enough fate, what of those who have family and friends to worry about? As long as no word comes saying they have died, they continue to remain alive as long as they are remembered. Those memories are the one thing they retain that assures them their life before this was real, and the people they left behind are all that's left of whatever it was that once rooted them to their homeland.
In 1940, when most of Europe had fallen under the shadow of Nazi Germany, Portugal remained unoccupied and fiercely neutral. Located at the far end of the Iberian peninsula and buffered from the rest of Europe by Spain, little Portugal became the last place of refuge for people fleeing Nazi Germany hoping to obtain a visa that would take them across the water to the United States, Canada, or South America. Whether living under Nazi rule was unacceptable to them or life threatening made no difference, as the result was the same. Standing on the edge of the continent looking across the ocean towards potential salvation, their only recourse was to wait.
Among those waiting was French aviator and author Antoine De Saint-Exupery who is perhaps best known for his children's book Le Petite Prince - The Little Prince. After the fall of France he refused to live in Nazi occupied France and made his way to America so he could continue to fight. Like so many others he ended up in Portugal waiting for a visa, and it was during his time in Portugal among fellow refugees that he was inspired to write the essay Letter To A Hostage, which is now being re-issued by Pushkin Press of London, England.
Unlike the refugees of today who are resigned to the hopelessness of their situation, the majority of those waiting in Lisbon acted no differently than they would have if they were on vacation in the south of France or other resort area. On the whole these were people who had the where with all to have bought their way out of whatever troubles they might have experienced in their homeland. Once ensconced in Lisbon they proceeded to live as if their circumstances remained unchanged, dressing up every night and going to the casinos or attending lavish dinner parties. Of course it was all pretence, or as Saint-Exupery puts it: "As Lisbon played at happiness, they (the refugees) played at pretending they would return"(to their homelands).