From a Man without a Country to an American by Choice: John Dos Passos and Migration


When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940, 4,300 Sephardic Jews tried to escape deportation to the concentration camps by claiming to have Portuguese ascendancy. The Nazis contacted Salazar, to know if the Portuguese dictator was interested in exchanging the Jews against the much-needed wolfram to harden steel fabricated in the German armament industry. Yet, Salazar was all but enthusiastic about it. He negotiated hard to export the less amount of wolfram possible in exchange of the maximum numbers of German weaponry and gold. To give in to the Nazis, by showing interest in the Jews of Portuguese ascendancy, would have meant to jeopardize the whole negotiations.

However, when Salazar received a telegram with Portuguese Jewish names listed that were deported to the concentration camps, Salazar sent immediately for the German ambassador in Lisbon. The latter explained that if the Jews had Portuguese passports they had nothing to fear. They would be allowed leave, since Portugal was a neutral country. Yet, those that were Dutch, and only had Portuguese ascendancy, were considered enemies and were thus deported and annihilated. Yet, if Salazar was so much interested in the Jews, it was stressed, the wolfram-deal with Portugal could have been re-negotiated. Portugal would get the Sephardic Jews for the wolfram deliveries. Salazar strictly declined this attempted blackmail. Moses Amzalak, the President of the Jewish community in Lisbon, and Salazar’s council on the matter, claimed that the Portuguese dictator had wet eyes when the German ambassador left. To be true, António de Oliveira Salazar was not anti-Semitic even though he did not help these Jews. Their lives it seems were not as much worth as the German arms and the Nazi Raubgold (stolen valuables, among them gold, as the Opfergold—the gold that belonged to the victims of National Socialism), which was traded for wolfram instead of the Reichsmark that during the time of war had suffered from raging hyperinflation. On the other hand, those Jews that had succeeded to flee to Portugal were welcomed in the country. Actually, in January 2, 1943, Salazar ordered the legalization of the Jewish refugees that were living in Portugal in the condition of illegal immigrants. Some of them went to live at Ericeira, where the local population greeted them, what essentially annoyed the German spies in the country. Salazar wanted to avoid any political tensions with Nazi Germany whose declared aim it was to exterminate the Jews not only in its Reich but also in Europe. Thus, when Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul at Bordeaux, gave out visas for thousands of Jewish refugees, Salazar dismissed him from his post. The Portuguese dictator was afraid to put at risk his good economic relations with Hitler’s Reich. In addition, Salazar had been alarmed that some of the refugees to whom Mendes authorized indiscriminatingly entry were adherent to a “communist philosophy.”


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John Dos Passos’ Influence on Günter Grass


“In much the same way as John Dos Passos, who describes New York’s topography in great detail, Grass depicts the Danzig into which he was born in 1927, portraying its inhabitants, referring precisely to infrastructures, streets, and the architecture of buildings such as churches, to finally explore historic events. He describes Danzig in the twenties, reflects upon the socio-economic hardships, the rise of National-Socialism in the thirties; he recounts the fatal consequences for Danzig of World War II, and finally the fall of Nazism in 1945. Yet, while Grass approaches Danzig (now in Polish Gdańsk) with the pain of loss, Dos Passos sees the city of New York as a source of evil and corruption, and expresses his criticism of the metropolis not only through his carefully chosen words, but also through the course of events.”


Classified and Confidential


“Besides the struggle to release Sacco and Vanzetti, a fight that in the end was lost to the judiciary system, and the public defence of the young poet David Gordon, Dos Passos became otherwise engaged with radicalism. The F.B.I registered in the Dos Passos’ dossier that the writer had been a member of the “New Playwrights,” an aesthetic, experimental drama group, inspired by the Russian revolutionary theatre, and preoccupied with the staging of leftist social themes; a group which John Dos Passos actually helped found together with Mike Gold, John Howard Lawson, M. Joseph Basshe, and Francis Faragoh. The F.B.I. recorded the following details: “The Dies Committee report reflected that in 1927 five young revolutionary playwrights including JOHN DOS PASSOS established the New Playwrights which was financed with an endorsement of $100,000 by OTTO KAHN, a Wall Street banker.” Dos Passos had long since criticized New York theatre as “lifeless and irrelevant”. Through the New Playwrights, he now wanted to publicly discuss “labor strife and injustice” in American society. To his friend Hemingway he wrote: “I’m deeper and deeper in drahma every moment”. But the truth is he was more concerned with the running of the theatre than with the actual writing of plays. He painted several sceneries, was responsible for the stage lighting, and busied himself with the creation of posters that the theatre needed to attract the public. Amongst others, Lawson’s Loud Speaker, Basshe’s Earth, and Dos Passos’ anti-capitalist play Airways Inc. were staged.”


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