Lisbon, Europe’s Pier

Last week found me in Lisbon, Portugal.

I can hear you asking why, and what I did there.

The answer is, I was invited to attend the unveiling of a mural in the Port of Lisbon on the occasion of its 136th anniversary.

The mural is titled: Porto de Lisboa, Cais da Europa, or as translated into English, The Port of Lisbon, Europe’s Pier.

Those of you who have visited Lisbon know that the port is a very dominant part of the city — it’s Europe’s exit door, facing the Atlantic. As a natural, deep water harbor, it opens to the west, and it goes on and on along the water edge, with cranes, shipping containers, train tracks and miles of docks.

It is also the place where thousands of refugees flocked to, during the Second Wold War, driven from their homes in other European countries by the approaching Nazi armies, congregating in Lisbon, waiting for a miracle, a way out, a ship, a pair of wings, anything.

As the initiative of journalist Ferreira Fernandes, and Mensagem Magazine, the port decided to inaugurate a mural, by famed Portuguese street artist vhils, dedicated to the 55.000 refugees, mostly Jewish, who were saved by arriving at neutral Lisbon and finding their way out of that port, to other safe destinations, around the globe.

My father-in-law, Roger Eli Kahan, a Frenchman, found himself in Lisbon in 1940, looking to escape the fate that met his parents and sisters, who perished during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

He was a movie-set photographer in France, before the war, having participated in over 24 classic films, clicking the shutter of his favorite Rolleiflex for publicity shots of the stars of the 30s, images that appeared everywhere, on posters, billboards and magazines.

But he was then in Lisbon, a displaced person, broke, with just a camera to his name, with nowhere to go, trying to secure a visa to just about anywhere. He took pictures of the scenes unfolding before his eyes, while waiting for a lucky break.

These pictures, depicting the anguish and anxiety of the time, the soup kitchen, the lines at the docks, the quiet despair while waiting for papers, visas, certificates, were put together into an article in Mensagem magazine, and later into an elegant book by Fernandes.

According to Fernandes’ research, my father-in-law was a man of many lives, before and after the war. Fernandes who uncovered the materials, was touched by the man who while under personal distress documented the city, and eternalized the important part it played in the lives of those who reached it.

He was also touched by the man’s survival instincts, going from a movie set-photographer, to refugee, reporter, military photographer, and glamour magazine paparazzi, over the span of a few years.

Eventually, inexplicably my father-in-law abandoned the camera and never picked it up again. He dedicated his abundant creative energy to becoming a hotelier, a restaurateur, a furniture maker, a farmer, an art collector and a family man.

As fate would have it, while in Lisbon, he managed to buy a Danish passport, and with his new name, Roger Eli Coster, he arrived on Ellis Island, USA, via Brazil, to become an American citizen and an American soldier.

The 1940 image, selected by the Port of Lisbon for the mural, inspired by Fernandes, and Mensagem Magazine, was a moment-in-time on the docks, it depicts a woman, obviously middle-class by the way she was dressed, sitting on suitcases, resigned to wait, and quietly pray, until perhaps she would be saved by a ticket to freedom.

The image my father-in-law created is very dramatic, in black and white, and it tells the complete story of that period, and the tragedy that led hopeful people to the Port of Lisbon, Europe’s exit door.

Which brings me back to last week.

The mural, by Vhils, was inaugurated at sunset, on October 31st, 2023, at the exact same place where the photograph was taken.

There were at least two hundred invited Lisboetas at the scene, all very elegantly dressed.

The artist Vhils is known and appreciated in the city, and he gave the image of the refugee woman, his own striking personal interpretation.

The port also built a small plaza around it, The Peace Plaza, complete with potted olive trees, is the area where one of my father-in-law’s pictures shows heaps of suitcases, and trunks, belonging to those waiting for the opportunity to flee.

The event was branded: The Pier of Europe: Roger Kahan. Refugee, Photographer. Lisbon 1940. Once the mural was unveiled, invitees congregated in a beautiful 30s building next to the mural to listen to the Director of the Port, the Mayor of Lisbon, and Mensagem Magazine’s senior writers Ferreira Fernandes, and Catarina Carvalho.

Fernandes’ description of the mural and book project, and what it means, was heartfelt and insightful, you could hear a pin drop while he spoke. Carvalho, who is a natural in front of the microphone, introduced the audience to the historic photographs.

While Fernandes was the one who uncovered the materials, wrote the original story, and the book, Carvalho and her team of dynamic young journalists, put together the event, in collaboration with the port.

The Mayor of Lisbon, Carlos Moedas, addressed me personally from stage, in English, in front of the entire audience and thanked me for coming from afar, stating that the pictures reflect Lisbon’s status as a safe-haven where 55,000 refugees were saved. He reiterated Lisbon is the three-religion city, and called for tolerance and mutual respect. He said that the story of Roger Kahan is the story of survival and redemption, made possible because he fled to Lisbon.

It was a historical speech. A thundering proclamation of welcome and neutrality. Many people wanted to shake my hand and talk to me, afterwards. I felt like it wasn’t me who was participating, but the spirit of the man, long dead, who was well and alive, and fondly remembered in Lisbon.

Mensagem placed some of the photographs around the event hall, I looked at them, some I have never seen before. My father-in-law, or grandpa, as we called him, certainly could take great pictures and without the bells and whistles of our modern cameras.

Then the book was presented, and  Fernandes, surrounded by members of the audience conducted a signing. They served cocktails, and hors d’oeuvres. I got red roses. The mayor’s wife, Celine, shook my hand and there were tears in her eyes.

The whole production was a once in a lifetime event. I did not expect it to be as big as it was. In fact, the magazine has been continuously publishing related stories, since.

Check things out: mural-vhils-de-ferreira-fernandes-roger-kahan/

Grandpa died in Aruba in 1987, and is buried in the Jewish cemetery here. Throughout his life he never spoke of the events prior to his arrival on Ellis Island. For him, his life began when he stepped foot on American soil.

But stories from the past have a way of revealing themselves. And that was just an example of what we mean when we say: All will be revealed, at the end!

Thank you everybody, for making this happen.


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November 08, 2023
Rona Coster