Maria Esteves' story
06 February 2014
By Pan Macmillan
It was the summer of 1943. One day, a group of children arrived in the village of Chaves. Albertina, my grandmother, was the mother of two young boys, a religious woman in a time when northern Portuguese villages were isolated from the world, sharing occasional contact with the neighbouring villages of the Spanish border.
Although Portugal was not participating in the war (at least officially), its effects were felt everywhere. Food and water were rationed and the movement of refugees was intense; although they usually didn’t go near the villages, groups of people were seen crossing the rivers and travelling through the forests, and many stories were told.
So, when a group of children arrived and asked for shelter in the village, Albertina immediately contacted the local priest and they were taken in. They were children aged from four to ten years old, accompanied by two Spanish men. My grandmother couldn’t stop looking at them and her heart broke just to think that these children had been forced to leave their parents to travel god-knows-where, probably never able to see their homes again.
‘Who are these angels?’ she asked one of the Spanish men, himself barely more than a young boy, with a starving look on his face. He looked so thin that his mouth seemed to stretch in a continuous smile.
‘They are Jewish children. We have been travelling with them for some weeks now. We will reach Lisbon soon and then they will be taken by relatives who already are there, and then they will be sent to America.’ He spoke quickly as if taking something out of his chest. Something horrible that he wanted to get rid of.
That night, my grandmother Albertina cooked for them and brought her own children to join them. They were exhausted, but children always find a way to communicate and share a smile. They were French and had travelled all the way through Spain, having now finally reached the Portuguese border. And the promise of freedom was finally in sight.
They left the following morning, with some provisions and the two Spanish men as well as a Portuguese man (the priest asked him to guide them while travelling in the country and avoiding big cities). As Albertina saw them leaving, she was finally able to cry. She cried for a long time, with a strong pain in her heart for these children. One thought was on her mind:
‘They could be my children, they could be anybody’s children. Why do children have to suffer like this?’
The villagers never knew what happened to these children. They probably reached Lisbon, arrived in America and were able to restart their lives. Maybe they were even able to forget that journey and the pain within. But Albertina never forgot them.