Aristides Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux in 1940, when the German army invaded France. Despite orders to the contrary from his government in Lisbon, Mendes issued 30,000 visas to refugees who then escaped into neutral Portugal.
When the Salazar government stopped recognizing his visas, Mendes issued refugees Portuguese passports. He used to drive to the Spanish border to persuade guards to let people across. A third of those he saved were Jews.
Historian Yehuda Bauer says his was “the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
When Sousa Mendes insubordination was discovered, Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar threw him out of the diplomatic service, canceled his pension and disbarred him from practicing law.
Mendez was unable to support his wife and 14 children, his family home in the village of Cabanas de Viriato was repossessed after the war, and he was forced to live on handouts from a local Jewish association. He died in poverty and disgrace in 1954.
His children were blacklisted, forced to seek education and work abroad. Two of his sons enlisted with the Allied forces.
Now the Sousa Mendes Foundation is cooperating with groups in Portugal and France to preserve Sousa Mendes’ memory, identify those he saved and collect artifacts that they hope one day will fill the museum, Paul Ames reports in the GlobalPost.
Survivors who escaped with Sousa Mendes’ help, accompanied by relatives and members of the Sousa Mendes family, last month retraced their steps from Paris to Portugal via Bordeaux, honoring the man who is one of Yad vashem’s “Righteous among the Nations.”
“I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to reunite these families who last saw each other in 1940 and re-enact the journey,” Olivia Mattis, president of the Seattle-based Sousa Mendes Foundation, told Ames. “It was very intense, a fantastic opportunity to shine a spotlight on the Sousa Mendes cause.”
Mattis’ father was seven when he fled from Belgium with his parents.
The group’s visit to Cabanas de Viriato attracted media attention, and Portugal’s culture minister announced that funds will be made available to repair the Sousa Mendes home’s roof as a first step to restoring the 19th-century mansion.