A middle-aged gentleman from a distinguished Catholic family, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, was an unexpected hero. He loyally served his native country of Portugal as a diplomat. His career of three decades had taken him around the world to Kenya, San Francisco, Zanzibar and Brazil. He and his wife, Maria Angelina, had a large family of fourteen children. After almost ten years in Belgium, Sousa Mendes was then appointed Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, a city in south-western France.
When the war broke out and the Nazis began to advance through the French countryside, the quiet old city of Bordeaux on the Atlantic was overcrowded with desperate refugees seeking to escape from Europe. Their only hope was through Portugal where ships were departing for North and South America. In order to leave France, cross through Spain and arrive in Portugal, a Portuguese visa was needed, showing that entrance via Spain was only temporary. And then, to appease Hitler, the Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, issued his “Circular 14,” decreeing that no Jews or dissidents would be permitted to reach Portugal.
Sousa Mendes felt strongly that this dictate violated the traditional principles of his country but was unsure what he could do. And then, he met and developed an unlikely friendship with Rabbi Chaim Kruger, who had fled Antwerp with his wife and nine children. Sousa Mendes told Rabbi Kruger that he also had a large family and wanted to help the Kruger family. However, Rabbi Kruger felt it was not fair that his family accept his protection when so many other Jews were hungry and homeless.
Rabbi Kruger respectfully told Sousa Mendes, “I cannot take visas and leave my people behind.” He was implying that visas should be issued to all the Jewish refugees. José Seabra, assistant to Sousa Mendes, overhearing the conversation, advised him in Portuguese not to hand out any visas.
Sousa Mendes wrestled with his conscience for two agonizing days. Then he made an announcement: “I cannot allow all you people to die,” he stated in front of the consulate staff. “Many of you are Jews, and our constitution clearly states that neither the religion nor the political beliefs of foreigners can be used as a pretext for refusing to allow them to stay in Portugal. I’ve decided to be faithful to that principle, but I will not resign. The only way I can respect my faith as a Christian is to act in accordance with the dictates of my conscience.”
An assembly line was set up and Sousa Mendes quickly began issuing thousands of visas, passports and travel documents. Over a 12-day period in June 1940, more than 30,000 people received visas. Among them were Margret and H.A. Rey, creators of the children’s series “Curious George,” Spanish painter Salvador Dali and the crown-prince of Austria-Hungary Otto von Habsburg. 12,000 of the refugees were Jewish, among them Rabbi Kruger and his family.
When the Fascist government in Portugal heard about his activities, it ordered Sousa Mendes to stop immediately. However, he was defiant, explaining, “It is better to stand with G-d against man than with man against G-d.”
Mendes finally agreed to return to Portugal though he continued to issue visas at the border towns of Bayonne and Hendaye until he was stopped.
Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer referred to Sousa Mendes’ efforts as “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
He surpassed Oscar Schindler’s bravery and that of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno, who offered visas to Jews fleeing Lithuania.
When Sousa Mendes returned to Portugal, an enraged Salazar declared him mentally unfit.
“Even if I am dismissed,” said Sousa Mendes, “I can only act as my conscience tells me.”
Not only was he dismissed, he was also stripped of his diplomatic status, his pension and his right to practice law, his original profession. He was declared “a disgraced non-person.” All but one of his children had to leave Portugal for a better life. He suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Alone and penniless, the only ones who helped him were, appropriately, members of a local Jewish refugee agency.
Even in the last sad years of his life, Sousa Mendes never regretted his brave actions. “I could not have acted otherwise and therefore I accept all that has befallen me with love.”
Before he died at age 68, he asked his family to restore his name.
In 1966 Sousa Mendes was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” This was the first step in restoring his name and honor. Not until 1988 did the Portuguese parliament officially dismisses all charges, restoring his diplomatic status and promoting him to ambassador. Posthumously he finally received a standing ovation and was granted the “Order of Liberty,” one of its highest honors.
The descendants of Sousa Mendes and many of his visa recipients founded the Sousa Mendes Foundation with a mission of preserving his legacy. The organization identifies, locates and contacts those who received visas from Sousa Mendes.
“His story has been buried in Portugal for so many years, but this is a story of national pride,” said Olivia Mattis, the foundation’s president, whose father and other family members were saved by Sousa Mendes. “He was a courageous man who rose to the occasion when there was demand. Part of his punishment was to be erased from history, and that is where our work starts.”
Without knowledge of the Holocaust to come, he acted on his intuition and moral conscience and saved 30,000 lives.
Many people are still unaware of the hero who saved their families. Four years ago, Harry Oesterreicher discovered that his grandparents and father were granted a visa by Mendes. Together with several dozen others from around the world, he attended an anniversary visit to the consul building. “One could visualize the refugees waiting in the streets below, sleeping on the stairs,” said Oesterreicher. “I pictured myself walking in the footsteps of my grandfather as I climbed the first two flights, and could almost feel the hope, and also the fear he must have felt.”
The Sousa Mendes descendants are now looking for a final act of reparation. The 19th-century manor that was the family home is still in disrepair, the doors broken up for firewood in the last tragic years of Mendes’ life. In 2001, the house finally returned to the family through compensation and donated funds from the Portuguese government. Their dream is to turn the ruined building into a museum and human-rights library to honor Sousa Mendes, which would be the only place in Portugal to commemorate the Second World War.
“What my family wants more than ever is to restore the house, for it to be returned as a place of consciousness, to teach others about courage,” states one of his grandsons. “This story no longer belongs to just us. It now belongs to humanity and that’s how it should be.”