Important things can be found in Wikipedia: Nazi Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940, and France surrendered on June, 22nd. But it’s personal dates that make great stories: May 24th, 1940, the 26-year-old French Jew Roger Kahan entered the Portuguese consulate-general in Paris – and announced he wanted to be saved.
Two weeks after his cry and four days after France’s surrender, he received the reply, “Visa refused.”
These official responses can sometimes come across as impersonal, almost as if they are urging not to be taken seriously. Starting from the beginning of World War II, the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Salazar himself, issued explicit instructions: “Consulates should not issue visas to Jews. Only in Lisbon can that decision be made on a case-by-case basis.”
Official documents often appear straightforward, even when they convey unpleasant and harsh decisions, as was the case here. However, to truly grasp the significance of it all it is essential to view these documents through the lens of a person’s story, such as Roger Kahan’s, and to acknowledge the obstacles he faced.
The answer “No” was given to 86 more individuals at the Paris consulate (documents and information related to this are preserved in the Diplomatic Historical Archive in Lisbon).
Kahan was a young man, in his home country, and in the city where he was born. He lived very close to the Portuguese consulate-general on Kléber Avenue, just a half-hour walk from his home. In the hierarchy of others’ distress, his case might have seemed relatively minor.
The same list of undesirables designated by the Portuguese consulate also included, for example, Romanian citizen Samuel Margulies, along with his wife and three children. All of them were Jewish, and all had their visa applications denied. Their story appeared to be even more heart-wrenching.
Why, then, not write about them?
Because Roger Kahan broke into an old story that I was following and I came across this extraordinary story.
From astonishment to astonishment, I followed Roger Eli Kahan Ostrowski, Roger Kahan, also known later as Roger Coster. He became my Roger. Him and the little stones he layed, around the world. Like the instant – amazing for us and decisive for him – he touched our city of Lisbon.
An old story and three Jewish women
In the summer of 1990 – the Público newspaper was still only weeks old – I published a story about three old women forced by the Nazis to come to Portugal when they were young.
I didn’t speak again with Ilse Losa, she died in 2006. I never again met Yvette Davidoff, who disappeared in 2008. And I never again saw Ruth Arons, who passed away a few months ago. But, I never forgot them, of course.
In 1990, the register book of the jewish cemetery in Lisbon had only a few pages and when I touched it, it left dust and lime in my hands. A stone’s throw from the Alto de São João cemetery, among vineyards and fig trees, the tombs occupied no more than a large yard – beyond its walls, eastern Lisbon, the Tagus River and the sun that always rises on that side.
One could see that before the year 5695 (1935 in the roman calendar), the dead in the cemetery had come from Tangier, Gibraltar, Morocco… They were portuguese Jews returning from the Mediterranean shell and their Sephardic exodus. “My little Portugal,” that’s what the grandmothers of Smyrna called their boys.
As World War II approached, the book was registering colder origins: Poland, Germany, and other strange places, spread across countries and empires. Names like Bessarabia that we now recognize from the war in Ukraine.
Those who had left their homes in a hurry had registered vague identities. On the same page, united by the chance of alphabetical order, Malchen Katze Meyer: “Age? Child”. Marie Acher: “Unknown filiation”. Messod Gerstein: “Country unknown”.
But my story for Público was not about those castaways from Europe who died when they reached the Portuguese shore. The story was about Ruth, Yvette and Ilse. Of the few Jews, no more than a hundred and a half, who wanted and were able to continue living in the safe haven of Portugal.
They had lived through a collective terror. Across Europe they had fled, since Hitler’s coming to power in Germany, the anti-Semitic laws and the cruel facts that followed.
Do you know what I am talking about?
Yes, of course, there was the Holocaust, which was already overwhelming. But let me dwell on some details: in Germany, from August 1938, the Law on the Change of First and Family Names forced Jews with names not obviously jewish to adopt the middle name “Israel” or “Sarah”, depending on their gender.
“Race” above citizens.
Another German example: in the same year, all Jewish passports were considered invalid if they were not stamped, in red, with the letter
Other facts about the concentration camps led us to downplay these details. But from the beginning, everything, from the details, was already monstrous.
The writer Ilse Losa, who was born in a village near Hanover, Germany, had an early awareness of the ominous influence of Hitler’s regime. By 1934, she found herself at the customs in Porto, where a barefoot woman kindly took charge of her suitcase, balanced it on her head, and traversed the cobblestone streets of Miragaia.
Upon her first visit to the Sport Café in downtown Porto, she caused quite a sensation, as it was not common in Portugal for women to go to cafes. At the age of 21, the young Ilse had already experienced the cafe culture of Berlin, with its gemütlich and cozy atmospheres, complete with daisies adorning the tables. Surprisingly, she did not regret the change she had stirred.
Ilse Losa went on to write two remarkable books that delved into the experience of leaving one’s home country as a young girl and adapting to the new homeland that welcomed her. She was one of the trailblazers in the realm of Portuguese children’s literature.
Also of German origin, Ruth Arons shared with me how she became aware of the impending changes in her life. When Hitler ascended to power, her father made a pivotal decision. He withdrew her and her sister from the public high school and enrolled them in a religious school, harboring a hopeful, albeit illusory, notion that this would provide them some semblance of safety.
Recalling a memorable episode from George Costanza’s life in the TV show Seinfeld, where he was fired and returned to his job the next day, hoping to go unnoticed, Ruth and her sister found themselves in a real-life situation. At their new school, they were ostracized by the parents of their fellow classmates. Their days of privileged Berlin childhood, with their father being a successful lawyer and their grandfather owning the Gebrüber Arons Bank, had come to an end. In 1936, they made the decision to leave. “That day, I danced,” Ruth confided in me, adding, “But I knew little about Nazi Germany…”
Little? She was a living testament to the enormity of the situation, a young girl dancing with joy because she was leaving behind her hometown and her childhood.
The Arons family embarked on a journey to Portugal, crossing the border through the Alentejo region. During their travels, their splendid Adler convertible car was stopped by the police. In a considerate manner, through gestures, the officer conveyed to the father that he should not drive with his sleeves rolled up. The Arons family responded with smiles, recognizing that they had entered an authoritarian country but one marked by a more gentle form of authoritarianism. They breathed a collective sigh of relief.
I also had the privilege of speaking with Yvette Davidoff, the last of the three elderly women who sought refuge in Portugal. She was the only one among them who was Portuguese, tracing her roots back to the Sephardic diaspora. Although she was born in Vienna, her mother, Rosina, hailed from Turkey, and her father, Desidério, from Bessarabia. Remarkably, all of them possessed Portuguese passports.
Their lives took a distressing turn with the advent of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by the Nazis. Yvette’s father had passed away, and her mother, Rosina, sought refuge under the protection of the Portuguese passport, eventually arriving in Paris. Yvette’s grandmother, however, chose to remain in Vienna.
It wasn’t until October 1942 that both mother and daughter finally set foot in Portugal, their home country. Shortly thereafter, Yvette embarked on a mission to assist the Joint, also known as JDC, an international organization dedicated to supporting Jewish refugees during the tumultuous era in Europe. By then, there were already lists of prisoners in German concentration camps.
In collaboration with the Red Cross, the Joint organized the dispatch of packages weighing up to half a kilo, containing items like chocolates, canned sardines, and coffee. These packages were destined for individuals about whom little was known, except for one crucial piece of information: they were incarcerated in Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Theresienstadt.
In 1990, within her apartment on Rua do Sol ao Rato, Yvette whispered, “Theresienstadt…” She then turned to me, saying, “I sent so many small packages there, and only after the war ended did I discover that’s where they had taken my grandmother Mazaltov. I know the day she entered, I know the day she passed away. The Germans are incredibly meticulous with their records…”
Now, you might wonder, how does this narrative relate to the French Jew Roger Kahan? Well, it doesn’t, at least not directly. This story serves as a reminder of how long it’s been since we’ve heard from my Roger, to whom we owe a great deal. Sometimes, offering some context, even if it appears to be diverting from the main point, helps us appreciate the significance of what we’ve truly gained.
The late discovery of Roger Kahan
It was Yvette who first introduced me to the concept of the Economic Kitchen, known as Cozinha Económica. This initiative was one of the ways that the Joint (JDC) aided the thousands of Jewish refugees who flocked to Lisbon. At the time, Lisbon stood as the last European port open to those seeking salvation.
The Economic Kitchen was situated in Travessa do Noronha, a narrow alley leading to a secluded square at a dead-end in the Bairro Alto neighborhood. It was located below Rua da Escola Politécnica and adjacent to Jardim do Príncipe Real. Today, luxury condominiums occupy the surrounding area.
More than thirty years later that I stumbled upon Roger Kahan’s photograph. Additionally, I came across a story about the Jewish refugees in Portugal, featured in the Mundo Gráfico magazine in January 1941. Strikingly, all the photographs within that article were credited to the French photographer Roger Kahan. A caption described him as a “famous reporter,” although this was not necessarily the case.
So, after all, the Jew Roger Kahan, who had been barred from entering Portugal by the Portuguese consulate in Paris in the summer of 1940, had managed to arrive. In the fall of that same year Roger Kahan was in Lisbon. And he witnessed the anguish of his people, potographing it.
He was not a journalist, nor a reporter: he was a cinema plateau photographer, the profession of those who follow the making of a movie, to later publicize it… and the stars who participate in it. Ciné-Ressources, a digital catalog that gathers information from libraries and archives dedicated to French cinema, registers that Kahan participated in 24 of the greatest French films of the 1930s, including Marcel Carné’s iconic Port of Shadows.
His profession was to seductively photograph a reality – the making of a film – that created a fiction. That was his French phase. Being a victim made him plunge into reality, hard and painful. That was Roger Kahan’s Lisbon phase.
On a witness’ trail
Roger Kahan was born in 1913, in Paris, in an immigrant family. His father was a Jewish from Russia, as his family names indicated: Kahan Ostrowski. He was a taxi driver and he sang opera arias – because he had been a baritone. His mother was from Italian origin, and algerian ancestry: Cesarina Zenatti.
A studio photo shows him with his two sisters, still in the 1920s. The studio was on Poncelet Street, in the same neighborhood and three blocks from Torricelli Street, where Roger Kahan was still living when he had to flee Paris, twenty years later. It was a middle class area on the right bank of the Seine river.
Roger Kahan’s daughter-in-law Rona Kahan Coster lives in Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles. She doesn’t remember her father-in-law mentioning the family he left behind. “He had survivor’s guilt. His sisters died. He never ever talked about this.”
The catalog Ciné-Ressources explains the silence: “Of Jewish origin, Roger Kahan was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust.”
That was what it meant to be a Jew who arrived in Portugal in 1940: he was a fugitive, hunted across Europe coming to the last port that could save him. Portugal denied him entry, and yet he arrived here. How?
Kahan could have been one of the refugees saved by Aristides Sousa Mendes, the now famous brave Portuguese consul in Bordeaux who made the choice to be fair, between obeying the “Circular 14”, the portuguese law that denied the diplomats any right to give visas, and the panic of the Jews who came to France in panic, between bureaucratic order and moral disorder.
In late spring, 1940, there was a crowd camped under the windows of the Bordeaux consulate. Our consul opened the doors and started signing visas by the hundreds.
The last visas signed by the generous consul were on June 22, 1940. The day France surrendered, and so did the consul. He was summoned to Lisbon to be punished for disobedience – and his career was over. In Bayonne, outside the Spanish border, Aristides de Sousa Mendes still signed visas. Like a resisting sunset because he knew he would never rise up again.
It’s not likey that the Parisian Roger Kahan went all the way down to Bordeaux when his fate was still pending on a response from the Portuguese consulate in Paris. But one should not equate only normal behaviors in situations of collective anguish: the Romanian Jews who were Kahan’s companions on that list of visa requests in Paris, the Margulies, bet on Bordeaux, and they won: they got the last signatures of the fired consul.
Roger Kahan’s name does not appear on the list of refugees saved by Aristides Sousa Mendes. We have to look for other hypotheses to really know what saved him. Or who.
In 1940 Lisbon was mainly a passage – maybe if we know where he went afterwards, we will know how he got here.
A righteous Brazilian enters (perhaps) the story
In early fall of 1940, German philosopher Walter Benjamin crossed the Pyrenees on foot, from France to Spain, heading Portugal. He was carrying all possible guarantees: transit visas through Spain and Portugal and a visa to get on the boat in Lisbon for the United States. But he was stopped by Spanish guards at Portbou, in Catalonia, and they threatened to send him back.
He thought that the century – and the rest – was over and committed suicide.
Thick books, now archived at the Torre do Tombo, keep these records of the passports of those who entered the country with a visa to go somehwere else. They were registered by the political police, PIDE (then PVDE). Without a visa, you would be stranded, not allowed to leave.
On October 26, 1940, in Book 19 of the passport visa registers, it was written that the Frenchman “Kahan Ostrowiski Roger Alice” had presented himself to the Portuguese authorities in Lisbon and had the proper documents.
The most interesting information was the destination: “Brazil”. This information matches the article in Mundo Gráfico magazine which stated, in January 1941: “Roger Kahan, currently in Brazil…”. But it remains to be seen: which Brazilian authority had helped him?
Like Salazar’s Portuguese government with Circular 14, in Brazil, the President Getúlio Vargas imposed restrictions on the entry of Jews. In the 1930s, overt or hidden anti-Semitism was spread throughout many countries.
The Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs enforced the same procedure as Lisbon: the entry decision for Jews was centralized in Rio de Janeiro, then the capital.
Hardly would the ambassador in Lisbon, Arthur André Jorge, disobey orders from his government. He was close to Getúlio, to whom he had been Secretary of the Presidency immediately before coming to Lisbon, in 1935.
Moreover, when André Jorge was ambassador in Berlin he had shown “sympathy” for the new chancellor Adolf Hitler about “people of Jewish origin”. Besides being popular in public opinion, Jew-hatred influenced a considerable part of the Brazilian elite.
Who issued the Brazilian visa, in 1940, to the Frenchman Kahan Ostrowiski, with ostensibly Jewish names? Who allowed him to arrive in Lisbon and from there to Brazil?
We have to remeber the Brazilian ambassador in Paris, Luiz Souza Dantas. And the rare circumstance, for a diplomat at the time, of his will to save many Jews.
Dandy, with an eternal noose around his neck, cultured, friend of tout Paris, of the famous and artists, married to an American Jew (sister of the owner of the Washington Post newspaper), Ambassador Souza Dantas was one of the few Brazilian diplomats to alert his government about the extermination planned by the Nazis.
A great diplomat, conciliator and patriot, dean of ambassadors in France, Souza Dantas had been in Paris since 1922. But what he knew of the Nazis sort of relieved him of the duties of obedience of a high official. Like the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, the Brazilian ambassador unleashed visas. He signed more than 800 visas for refugees, 425 of them for Jews.
There are a couple of intriguing coincidences that provide support for the Souza Dantas hypothesis: these events unfolded around the same time as Roger Kahan’s visa was rejected, and the diplomat played a role in helping the actor Louis Jouvet travel to Brazil. Louis Jouvet had starred in the film “Hôtel du Nord,” directed by Marcel Carné, where Kahan had worked two years earlier.
The courageous and rare actions of Souza Dantas during World War II were only officially recognized in the 1990s, largely due to the research of historian Fábio Koifman. Dantas’ name was commemorated on the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, in the garden of the “Righteous Among All Nations,” honoring non-Jews who had risked their lives to save Jews. A similar tribute had been previously bestowed upon Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a quarter of a century earlier.
The Brazilian diplomat, who had been removed from his position due to the issuance of unauthorized visas but continued to await a replacement, was arrested and interned in Germany for over a year. In 1944, Salazar, who had not forgiven his own dissident Aristides, personally intervened to secure Souza Dantas’ exchange for German prisoners held in Brazil, a process that took place in Lisbon.
Historian Fábio Koifman informed me that Roger Kahan is not included in the list of individuals confirmed to have been saved by the Brazilian ambassador Souza Dantas. Unfortunately, Koifman did not have access to Kahan’s passport, as he did for other survivors.
Roger Kahan passed away in 1987 before Fabio Koifman began his investigation. A talented photographer who captured the journeys to salvation of others through his lens but was reticent to convey his own story in words.
There is no known reference from Kahan regarding Souza Dantas, and he did not speak of his own escape. Consequently, we cannot ascertain whether Souza Dantas’ generosity also shielded the French photographer. Nonetheless, I can assert that lingering doubts have not been presented as certainties.
To further investigate, Koifman shared a file from the Brazilian consulate general in Lisbon, which mentioned “Kahan Ostrowski.” Curiously, only these two names, both distinctly Jewish, were typewritten by the consulate. Kahan’s occupation was listed as “photo operator.” The document, serving as a consular visa, was to be presented to the “Maritime Police at the port of destination.” However, he was only granted “temporary” admission onto national territory, and he was required to leave Brazil within six months.
The form was signed by the deputy consul in Lisbon, Pityguar Fleury de Amorim, on “November 1, 1940,” just five days after the Portuguese police had registered that Kahan already had a visa for Brazil in his passport. It is possible that the initial French visa (perhaps from Souza Dantas) was used to reach Lisbon, and the subsequent one, issued by the Brazilian Consulate General in Lisbon, was used to facilitate his journey to Brazil under specific conditions.
The back of the card adds that Roger Kahan arrived in Rio on the Spanish ship Cabo de Buona Esperanza. Kahan disembarked on November 27, 1940, and had to leave the country by May 27.
Upon arrival, the photographer gave the Riviera hotel in Copacabana as his address. He was a transit passenger.
In front of the Riviera was Copacapana’s Posto 6. This is the place of the Carlos Drummond de Andrade statue and the verse: “In the sea was written a city”. In the year Roger Kahan arrived in the city, the poet Drummond was pessimistic about the world, “more night than the night” (from the book Sentimento do Mundo), and wrote two little verses that the wandering Jew would recognize: “I feel dispersed, / Prior to borders” …
Roger Kahan arrived in Rio in December 1940. He began working as a photographer for “Travel in Brazil,” propaganda magazine in english edited by the famous writer Cecília Meireles. The first batch of these photos was published in the penultimate issue of the year – the magazine had a relatively low frequency, with just four editions annually.
The choice of subject for the report was evidently inappropriate for a photographer. It focused on the Imperial Museum in Petrópolis, the former palace of Pedro II of Brazil —nothing in these subjects breathed life into Kahan’s photography. It also didn’t create the illusion that perhaps Kahan took advantage of his trip to Petrópolis to cross paths with Stefan Zweig.
Maybe they had spoken about the fact that they both worked for Getúlio Vargas and on commissioned projects; one writing “Brazil: Land of the Future” (published in 1941 in several languages), and the other photographing ornate pedestals. Or perhaps they had simply remained silent and allowed themselves to be what they were at that moment: refugees. In that case, Roger Kahan would have captured Stefan Zweig with his Rolleiflex, offering us a portrait of the man. But no, Stefan Zweig, during his last residence in Petrópolis, stayed for only five months and took his own life in February 1942. By April 1941, Kahan was already in New York.
Kahan’s photos were featured in three more editions of “Travel in Brazil.” Most of these photos omitted the invisible population, as the Northeasterners and Blacks did not promote tourism. In a report commissioned by the magazine and written by an American travel journalist, Kahan accompanied the writer by plane to various cities. The report was titled “Wings Over Brazil,” but there were too many wings.
The photographs captured a statue in Maranhão, a church facade in Recife, and the tower of the Bonfim Basilica. It was only in Salvador that Kahan noticed two washerwomen on a balcony overlooking the bay and decided to incorporate people into his photos. Someone added a caption: “While the washerwomen work, they enjoy the luxury of a splendid view.” According to the professor Contatori Romano, who studied the magazine, this caption might have been a “subtle irony” by Cecília Meireles herself.
The postal box number 591 at Rocha Conde de Óbidos.
In Lisbon, Roger Khan portrayed his fellow escapees. He photographed them as poor people in the Economic Kitchen, where 1500 meals were served per day. And also at the port of Lisbon, waiting on the dock of the mists, which in the fall the Tagus has many, and patches of hope, which in 1940 were few.
Hundreds, thousands, waiting to embark, not knowing if there was one. The photos showed Lisbon at a historic and dramatic moment in the city.
Kahan illustrated facts as substantive as that bourgeois, with hat, tie, and raincoat, in a rental deckchair, sitting askew on the ground, between port rail tracks. He and his little daughter waiting for salvation on a Lisbon boarding dock.
Photographs, unfiltered and candid, serve as powerful reminders that wars are a complex aspect of human existence.
At the dock, someone with a keen business sense had brought beach chairs, providing a certain level of comfort to the bourgeois refugees who still had the means to rent a deckchair, sparing themselves the discomfort of sitting on the ground. On the other hand, another refugee, with a hat, perched on a suitcase on the dock, even though an inviting deckchair was right nearby, leaned against a wall.
Witnesses who can recount these stories help us grasp the moments. Photographer Roger Kahan, in his attempt to convey what he observed, depicted the dock strewn with a chaotic assortment of suitcases. He went to the top of the gangplank to capture images of those yearning to ascend the ship’s stairs.
The message is clear: Lisbon in 1940 was a place of escape.
The two photographs also tell us the location of the boarding areas. In the photo of the suitcases, we see in the background the Museum of Ancient Art, with its six large windows facing the Tagus River. In the photo of the gangplank, we see a swing bridge on the left.
The photos were taken, of course, at the Rocha wharf (Rocha Conde de Óbidos).
“Roger, we’re deeply grateful for your testimony. Beyond your photographs, there are scarce traces of what unfolded here in the port of Lisbon. And there is no mark proclaiming, ‘This is where it happened.’ It’s incredibly vital to our significant historical events to have a mark saying: ‘It took place here.’
If you closely examine the photograph of the gangplank, you’ll notice, at the far end of the dock on the right, a slightly darker, two-story building. Remarkably, this building still stands today, though now abandoned, its door secured with a padlock, its walls showing signs of peeling paint.
What truly underscores the significance of this abandoned building is the presence of postal box number 591 beside it. This seemingly minor but fundamental detail is captured in an iconic photograph from a pivotal moment in Lisbon’s history, reinforcing the proclamation: ‘It happened here.’
It was at this very spot that, one day, a woman stood, at the farthest edge overlooking the Tagus River.
In those days, Lisbon was the only place in Europe that allowed many people to fulfill their essential desires to live and be free. Roger Kahan’s photographs were a tribute to the sacred right of men and women to live and be free.
Once again, Lisbon stood out in universal history as a port of departure, the starting point.
A few months after Kahan took the photos, the artist Almada Negreiros got an invitation by the architect Porfírio Pardal Monteiro to create the panels that would illuminate the maritime terminals of Alcântara and Rocha Conde de Óbidos, which were under construction.
The order for the panels came from the visionary Salazar’s minister of the public works Duarte Pacheco. He wanted the terminals to accommodate tourists, as the port of arrival. The architect Pardal Monteiro was magnificent, as usual, and Almada was himself, as usual. He filled the walls with cinematic language and comic strips, told stories like that of the Nau da Catrineta, Lisbon’s folk, had people eating the soles of their shoes (like Charlot in “The Gold Rush”), painted barefoot fishwives and showed mixed-race couples (like himself and Sara Afonso).
About these frescoes, Almada said, “I never did better before, nor work that was more mine.”
In one of the triptychs at Rocha Conde de Óbidos, Almada painted from inside the ship. He painted the portal as willing to travel. To depart, like those photographed by Roger Kahan.
This is the destiny that the modest mailpost number 591 should have: to join the magnificent architectures of the two maritime stations and the beautiful frescoes of Almada – museums to the extraordinary human saga that took place right there, next to it, when they were being built – history, drama, stories.
How well this ensemble would look if, on the wall next to post office marker number 591, in the abandoned house that witnessed so much, the urban artist Vhils sculpted whatever he wanted about the memory that Roger Kahan left us.
The photos that changed history
In the Mundo Gráfico story, pubished in January 1941, it was written that Kahan’s photos “will illustrate the book Refugees, to be edited in America, by Dr. Augusto d’Ésaguy and Roger Kahan.”
D’Ésaguy was a Portuguese doctor, leader of the Portuguese Commission for Assistance to Jewish Refugees. And, in fact, Augusto Isaac d’Ésaguy boarded the American steamer Excalibur in Lisbon, April 1941, bound for New York. He carried documentation, as well as Kahan’s photos, to arm the influent American Jewish community with arguments and save European Jews.
It was not an easy task: the United States were not convinced to open its ports to the persecuted. In the book Coming to America: Refugees from the Holocaust, scholars Mattthias Blum and Claudia Rei refer to the the Portuguese ship Quanza to show the moral blindness the world was experiencing.
In the midst of the massive flight of Jews through Europe, Quanza left Lisbon with 317 passengers. In New York, 196 American citizens or visa holders disembarked, and all the others, mostly Jews, were barred. Another 35 people disembarked at the next port, in Mexico, and the Quanza was to return the remaining 86 Jews to Europe. They seem like accounts from a grocer, but it’s History well told, as it so often deserves.
Fortunately for the undesirables, the boat stopped in Norfolk, Virginia, to refuel. Eleanor Roosevelt, a brave activist for good causes and wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, led a protest and entry visas were granted to everyone.
Nothing more was heard about the book Refugiados. Kahan’s photos of the Jews in Lisbon are from October and November 1940. Few, taken in a short time, but good and rare. Towards the end of the war, the magazine Vida Mundial would use them again to show refugees. They are all in the archives of the Joint (JDC Archives) in New York.
In the same period, Erika Mann described this Lisbon as “waiting for a lifebuoy” and “metropolis of fugitives.” There are times and places that summon the same gaze to those who know how to look. The daughter of the future Nobel Literature laureate Thomas Mann, Erika worked for the BBC on programs in German against Hitler and desperately sought a visa for her uncle, Heinrich Mann, whose books, along with those of his brother, had been burned in the cloisters of German universities.
Roger Kahan and the other Lisbon
After the end of the Second World War, in 1946, the magazine Panorama came with a surprise: not only Roger Kahan had photographed his fellow refugees but he was also fascinated by the city of Lisbon. Is pictures were published in the magazine made by the National Information Secretariat. For propaganda purposes, but with good taste.
In that edition (Panorama No. 28), there was a text by the sculptor Diogo de Macedo, which ended with a beautiful phrase: “The greatest and most imposing monument in Lisbon is undoubtedly the Tagus, a work of God.” The famous intelectual Vitorino Nemésio writes with the expected elegance under a simple title, “This Lisbon.” And almost all of the photos are by Roger Kahan, taken during his stay in Lisbon, six years earlier, as an outcast, undesirable.
The main work of God in Lisbon for the refugee photographer was not just the Tejo river but the men and women themselves. Monuments, at most, serve as a frame to showcase the people.
Hs name appears as Roger Kahn and he is introduced as “Roger Kahn, Polish filmmaker who passed through Lisbon some time ago.” It is ungrateful to mistake his name, it’s a short hommage because it lacks the circumstance that brought him to Lisbon, but this story is a proof that, in the middle of all the drama, he took the time to look at the city.
And he saw it so well.
Roger Kahan and his previous life in the film industry
Panorama called him a “Polish filmmaker,” while Mundo Gráfico magazine identified him as a “famous reporter from Cine-Monde.” Both were off the mark, but had some clues. In France, where he came from, Roger Kahan appeared in the technical credits of major films. For example, he’s in this photo:
He is the one behind the camera, photographing Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan for the promotion of what would become a cult film, Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes) in 1938. To measure the film’s importance: it was directed by Carné, starred Gabin and Morgan, had sets and dialogues are by the poet Jacques Prévert…
Kahan photographed the main characters, the couple who immortalized the most famous line in French cinema: “T’as des beaux yeux, tu sais,” or “You have beautiful eyes, you know” Gabin told it to Morgan’s luminous blue eyes. But Kahan’s role was not limited to beautiful eyes. The docks of Le Havre were like this, the beaches were like this, and the dark streets were like this…”:
Between 1933 and 1939, Roger Kahan was one of the preferred set photographers for the great French filmmakers. Marcel Carné hired him for three masterpieces: Drôle de Drame (Bizarre, Bizarre), Quai de Brumes (Port of Shadows), and Hôtel du Nord.
According to the French Cinémathèque, the most researched stills in their archives are those of films by Alfred Hitchcock, Godard, and Marcel Carné. Those of the latter are almost always taken by his set photographer, Roger Kahan.
In Port of Shadows, Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin posing as “Nelly,” the young prostitute, and “Jean,” the deserter, are photographed in a seedy amusement park.
In a rough setting, at the stern of a fake boat, behind the buoy Normandie, they pose for the itinerant photographer who leans over the “box” tripod. The instant photographer appears with his back to the camera, his body wide, squeezed by his raincoat, and wearing a typical French cap.
Roger Kahan spoke very little about his time with the glory of French cinema. The family only had a vague notion, kept in an old album.
Rona Kahan Coster the daughter in law says: “He never photographed again.” Among the photographs the family kept, there is one of him leaning over his set photographer’s camera, Rolleiflex He was wearing a raincoat and cap. He knew that his profession, photographing facts – what goes into making a film – was ultimately as fictional as the fiction in films.
Life is an amusement park – sometimes it’s not, as was seen at the end of Port of Shadows. Roger Kahan, the man, knew it a few months later.
Rona sent me another photo of her father-in-law, a still from Port of Shadows. With the camera hanging from his neck and his hands in his pockets, the young photographer seemed to have asked someone to frame him next to a group of men directing the filming.
Perhaps on that day, during that exterior scene in le Havre, he thought: “One day I’ll be able to show what’s written on the back of this photo: me with Marcel Carné (the one with sunglasses).” At that time, he still had illusions that the past deserved to be remembered.
The photograph was meant to be very personal and banal: a young man in a fascinating job wanted to keep a memory.
Kahan also worked on Carné’s next film, Hôtel du Nord, another masterpiece. In January 1939, the war was about to begin and the magazine Cinemonde published an article about Marcel Carné. The director was known for saying “my country is the cinema”, but he spent the entire time talking about politics without realizing it.
Europe trembled in fear, and Carné shouted, “Where is the electrician who was here yesterday?” Every day, a new absence: “The sound technician has also disappeared?!” Forget about Czechoslovakia being invaded and the threat to Poland! What Carné wanted was to finish the movie. The film crew, some called up for the army, others escaping to safer places, was deserting.
The scene photographer was one of the few who fulfilled his role until the end.
In the following months, Roger was already just another fugitive, waiting in Lisbon – and to his fortune, he had a camera. Everything else was transient, until the visa for Brazil. Of the past, only what was definitive: he left behind his movies phase and never participated in any film again. He became a true wandering Jew. – altough he was not religious. He kept an eye on the dark clouds, prepared to move around.
Roger Kahan went to Brazil and then to the US. Two months later, Jean Gabin caught the American steamer Exeter, in Lisbon, for New York, where Hollywood and a beautiful Franco-German affair with Marlene Dietrich waited for him. At the same time, in Paris, Robert Le Vigan wrote to the Nazi occupiers: “I want to participate in the new order among the white men that we are” and denounced colleagues to the Gestapo.
In 1946, after the war ended, the good actor and bad person was expelled from his country. Roger Kahan had another occupation, another country, another name, and was married to a black woman.
Brazil was brief and left no trace in Kahan’s life. In the United States, success was fast. Hired by the Condé Naste group of magazines, Roger Khan worked for Vogue, and did covers for Life and men’s magazines. The talented camera remained his tool, but he used it in a new area, glamour.
A photographic arrangement by Roger Kahan appeared in House & Garden in 1942, of the 25 greatest interior designers of the 20th century. And aother of hs photos became famous that year. Both serve to date the presence of our traveler in his new destination.
The first celebrated interior designer William Pahlmann – having been called up for the army, he went to Missouri to teach how to camouflage buildings. America, at least the mythical one, always knew how to take advantage of its citizens’ best talents.
The second image is of women waving the American flag, a useful reminderr of a new condition: the country to which Roger now belonged. And he thanked it: the image was used in the Buy US Bonds And Stamps campaign to encourage the purchase of Treasury bonds and stamps to help the United States efforts of war. The country had already entered the War, after Pearl Harbor. Even today, Condé Naste sells posters and coffee mugs (for $20) with the original patriotic photo.
The American poster expedited his naturalization process, prompting Roger to seize the opportunity to change his name to “Roger Coster.” He believed that as an artist, having a memorable name was essential. Perhaps he had learned the importance of leaving the past behind. The truth was, the present was treating him well.
In New York, he married a striking Haitian woman, Laura Cadet. In 1943, they welcomed a son, who was baptized with the new family name, Roger David Coster. From this point forward, we will refer to our protagonist as Roger Coster.
In August 1945, Popular Photography featured dozens of pages filled with advertisements promoting hobbies in a growing economy. It introduced us to Sergeant Roger Coster of the American Air Force, who had returned to liberated Paris with a camera in hand.
The text requested by the renowned glamour photographer for the magazine came across as somewhat clichéd. The title, “Children Who Don’t Smile,” and the text read like this: “The kids lean against the walls, nibbling on a piece of bread.” However, the photos were impressive, despite the magazine’s poor paper quality and printing. Sergeant Coster had chosen to capture these images in Belleville, a modest, working-class neighborhood not far from his own.
America had mobilized him, recognizing his photography talent and allowing him to hone his craft. I must confess that given the remarkable journey Roger’s life had taken, I had expected his American military phase to be as imaginative as that of an interior designer assigned to a Middle Western barracks to teach camouflage.
With Roger Coster, one always anticipated the unexpected. Whether in the military or the civilian world, in America, Roger Coster created technically superb photographs.
During his time in France, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the impact he had left on the world of cinema, often overlooking his professional work, which also extended to photographic studios. It was during this phase that Kahan briefly passed through the renowned Studio Harcourt in Paris, where he gleaned the intricacies of lighting and shadow techniques used to capture the essence of celebrities’ faces.
As Roger Coster he seamlessly translated this mastery of studio photography to the world of luxury imagery at Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan, which he showcased in Vogue. It was a realm devoid of drama and adventure, quite different from the elevated standards set by the Roger Kahan I had come to expect in France’s cinema scene or in historical settings like Lisbon. Here he was something else.
Studio Harcourt, aptly named after its owner Cosette Harcourt (the pseudonym of Germaine Hirschfeld, a German Jew), was an iconic institution in photography. Even in the midst of wartime precautions, high-ranking Nazi officers queued up for portraits adorned with the “Studio Harcourt” insignia.
While this is indeed an intriguing facet of the Studio’s history, its relevance within the context of the narrative about Roger Kahan remains unclear. But what’s the point of knowing, in a story about Roger Kahan, that he photographed Charles Trenet at Studio Harcourt? The esteemed Charles Trenet (known for songs like “La Mer” and “Douce France”) doesn’t merit even the modest pedestal of mention that mailbox No. 591 on Rocha Quay would offer.
Roger Coster’s time in America, about eight years, was a successful career, a beautiful wife, a happy family. But happy lives rarely make great stories.
In 1950, at 37, is it worth going on telling our Roger’s story? Oh, yes, it is!
A hotel, Graham Greene, and more serendipity
It was Laura who introduced her husband to his next passion. She took him to Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, where he saw the Hotel Oloffson. Decadent, with a lacework facade, pointed turrets, a garden of bougainvillea and palm trees, it was mix between a tropical fairy tale and the Addams Family home. Roger was fascinated, and the Costers bought the Oloffson in 1950, putting it on the map for American artists.
At that time, a popular cartoon called “The Addams Family” was a regular feature in American newspapers. This cartoon was known for its dark humor and Gothic architecture, eventually evolving into a television series and a successful film franchise.
Laura Coster, in a letter to the cartoon’s creator, wrote, “We have a hotel in Haiti that bears a striking resemblance to the settings in your drawings.” She extended a warm invitation to Chas Addams to come and visit their establishment.
This was the beginning of a steady stream of actors and writers visiting the Oloffson for over a decade, from Tennessee Williams to John Gielgud. The English novelist Graham Greene stayed there three times while in Haiti.
The Oloffson was known as the “Greenwich Village of the Tropics,” surrounded by impoverished people who worshipped voodoo.
On his last visit in 1963, Greene dedicated himself to collecting testimony about the crimes of dictator Duvalier, who ruled the country. François Duvalier, a provincial doctor, gained a reputation that earned him the nickname Papa Doc. However, when he came to power in 1957, he became a dictator, supported by a violent troupe with dark glasses, the Tontons Macoutes.
Papa Doc believed that terror was an effective form of governance. It was said that the Tontons Macoutes didn’t like being looked at, and since their dark glasses prevented anyone from knowing what they were seeing, the people policed didn’t look.
Greene used the local scene to write a major, cynical novel in 1966 called The Comedians, where the backdrop is the infamous Papa Doc, his rise to power, brutality, and disgrace. Duvalier was still in power when the book was released; he died in 1971. The main characters in the book live in the “Hotel Trianon,” which Greene confirmed in several interviews was, in fact, the beautiful and strange Hotel Oloffson (“I call it the Trianon in The Comedians…”), where he had stayed.
The protagonist and narrator of the book is a man named “Brown,” a European who, as Greene recounts, “went to Haiti to be the owner of the ‘Trianon’.” The first two times Greene visited Haiti in the 1950s, the owner of the Hotel Oloffson was Roger Coster, who bought it fascinated and wanted to make it a success. In real life, Coster succeeded. In his novel, Greene says that was also “Brown’s” dream, but his hotel had only three guests; the terror of Papa Doc had scared away tourists.
In real life, owner Roger Coster named some of the rooms after famous clients, and this included a “Graham Greene suite.” Modestly, the writer didn’t put himself in The Comedians, and at the “Trianon” hotel, there was only a “John Barrymore suite.”
I believe that Greene never explicitly referred to Roger Coster as the inspiration for the novel in interviews – though Rona confirms it. Perhaps to protect the photographer-hotelier, because Greene knew the wrath of François Duvalier. After The Comedians was published in 1965, a libel against the dictator, Papa Doc immediately sent all Haitian embassies a pamphlet about Catholic Graham Greene’s sexual and drug sins.
In the biography he wrote about the writer, A Life of Graham Greene, Norman Sherry recounts that he met with Roger Coster, who told him: “One day, in Paris, my wife and I went to see the film The Comedians, and suddenly we saw the Oloffson, my hotel…”
Well, it was no longer his.
Filmed in 1967, the production of The Comedians managed to hire a fabulous cast – Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov… – but it failed to secure an essential protagonist, the Hotel Olofsson (though it appears in the poster . The dictator had forbidden filming in Haiti and the filming locations were at a modest hotel in Dahomey, Africa. But cinema is an illusion and it can even deceive a man’s dream.
During World War II, Graham Greene worked for the British intelligence services abroad, MI-6. His London department was dedicated to Lisbon, which was then the global epicentre where British and German spies deceived each other.
At that time, Greene did not go to Lisbon or work as a field agent, but he read plenty of reports about power and trafficking. Was this coincidence – Lisbon – never discussed between Greene and Kahan (Coster) during their time in Haiti?
As documented in Greene’s biography, the real-life brothel that Roger Coster introduced Greene to in Port-au-Prince was named Georgette’s. However, in the novel, this establishment was altered to Mère Catherine’s. This creative change allowed for flexibility in finding a suitable location for filming in any African port. It’s a common practice in fiction for stories to draw from real-life experiences while adapting them to varying degrees of authenticity and plausibility.
At the conclusion of both the book and the film, a character named “Brown” is compelled to relinquish his aspirations, leaving his cherished “Trianon” hotel behind and seeking refuge in the neighboring country, the Dominican Republic.
In reality, before this point, at the onset of Papa Doc’s dictatorship, Roger Coster found himself abruptly abandoning his home, his business, and his beloved dream—the Hotel Oloffson, under the cover of darkness. With ominous clouds on the horizon, it was time to set sail, all while maintaining a façade of business as usual. His escape led him to a nearby island, Puerto Rico.
In this episode, “Brown” mirrors the young Roger Kahan, as they both made many escapes. In contrast to the Roger of 1940, the 1960 one fled with his family.
The question remains: throughout their conversations, during their informal gatherings, or at the bar of the famed Hotel Oloffson with its renowned rum punch, did the meticulous and inquisitive Graham Greene never express an interest in delving into the past of his host, Roger Coster? Did Lisbon, a place the photographer had visited and which the former spy had investigated from London, never become a topic of conversation?
I think so too.
Beyond the coincidences in the construction of characters and scenarios, Roger Coster must have told the writer about his time in Lisbon in the early 1940s, about his anxieties and hopes. And more – perhaps Roger told him that no one in his family escaped the Shoah in the Nazi concentration camps.
While I cannot confirm with certainty, I believe they did discuss these matters. In “The Comedians,” there is a series of concise yet impactful sentences addressed to Greene that suggests such conversations.
The narrator “Brown” detailes the years of Papa Doc’s rule, including the oppressive Tontons Macoute in sunglasses who brutalized by day and awaited the cover of darkness to commence their reign of terror. President Duvalier, resembling a voodoo character, Baron Samedi, relished instilling fear in the vulnerable population. Following this description, the narrator “Brown” concluded with a direct statement:
“The situation is not abnormal. It belongs to human life. Cruelty is like a spotlight. It sweeps from one point to another. We can only escape it for a time.”
Yes, it appears that Roger Coster did share his life experiences with Graham Greene. He had already been a potential wandering soul, having been born a jew in France. It was unfortunately normal for him to find himself in the spotlight of the Nazis during the tumultuous 1930s in Europe. Likewise, it seemed inevitable for the Tontons Macoute to pursue him on that enigmatic island.
It was indeed a blessing and a grace for Roger Kahan to have experienced those intermittent periods of escape, to seize the opportunity for Lisbon to be a refuge, to secure a visa that carried him in Cabo Buena Esperanza to Rio. His dream of the Hotel Oloffson, coupled with his talent, allowed him to navigate the spaces in between the harsh spotlights of life.
Now, as I revisit my old report from 1990, I noticed a photograph of Cozinha Económica in Lisbon and a woman waiting on a dock, with no means to afford a chair, captured in the Lisbon of the 1940s. I yearned to understand the man behind the name, Roger Kahan. In all honesty, I had grown weary of encountering his name solely in captions, sometimes inaccurately, when we owed him so much.
I longed to move beyond mere captions and truly get to know the person who had left such an indelible mark, and I wondered if he ever revisited the places of his past. The answer was yes, he did.
He did return to places from his past and ventured in new ones. In the port of Eilat, Israel, he opened a restaurant named La Belle Créole, a loving tribute to his wife. It was there that his son, Roger David Coster, married Rona. The restaurant employed three Haitian cooks, and one of the most beloved dishes on the menu was the onion tart.
He also established an exotic fabric store at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome, amid the prestigious haute couture boutiques.He had a furtinture shop and colected art. These endeavors further enriched the tapestry of his life, combining his Israeli and Italian connections, complementing the French passport he used to enter and depart from Lisbon. “He was a seismograph,” as noted by Rona. “Whenever a situation began to feel unstable, he would go to another place.”
Roger Kahan was a globe-trotter for a variety of reasons, one of which was the symbolic presence of the unchanging “Good Weather” reading on the barometer in the movie Quai des Brumes, signifying stability through a permanently fixed and broken needle.
Ultimately, I discovered my Roger, who had found a sense of settled contentment. On the island of Aruba, within the small Jewish cemetery in Oranjestad, a gray tombstone proudly bears the names he defended and cherished: “Roger Kahan Coster,” complete with the years 1913-1987, noting each day. He passed away surrounded by his beloved family—his wife Laura, his son, and his grandson. Small stones, in accordance with Jewish tradition, were placed next to the tomb, a testament to his enduring memory.
Indeed, sometimes the spotlight can be less cruel than the one that extinguished lives with barely a trace, as is inscribed in the pages of the small cemetery in eastern Lisbon, six thousand kilometers away from Aruba.