Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Luis Martins de Souza-Dantas was a Brazilian diplomat who illegally granted Brazilian diplomatic visas to Jews in Vichy France during the Holocaust, saving a confirmed 425 Jews – and at least 400 other “undesirables,” including communists and homosexuals – from certain death.

Besides issuing visas, he regularly intervened with local and foreign diplomatic officials, saving additional countless lives. Although the precise number of visas he issued is impossible to determine, it is certainly well over a thousand, and most likely several thousand. Additionally, in countless instances where he did not actually sign the exit visa, he played a crucial role in encouraging other diplomats to grant it.

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Sadly, he died in relative obscurity, and his amazing heroism was largely forgotten until December 10, 2003, when the Committee for the Righteous Among the Nations and the Israeli Supreme Court recognized him as a Righteous Among the Nations in a stirring Yad Vashem ceremony. Ceremony participants included the Brazilian ambassador, Sergio Moreira Lima, and Ishai Amrami, the director general of Yad Vashem.

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In this December 30 (the year was 1915, though it is not listed) correspondence on the ambassadorial letterhead of the Brazilian Legation in the Argentine Republic, Buenos Aires, Souza-Dantas writes in Portuguese:

Dear friend, Dr. Rodriguez,

Here are the books and a letter. I ask you kindness to deliver to Felix, and especially my most vivid saudade [feelings of pain and loss in missing someone] from a friend and admirer with much thanks.

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Born to an aristocratic family in Brazil, Souza-Dantas (1876-1954) earned a Bachelor of Law degree at age 21 before joining the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he rose through the ranks of the diplomatic service and was appointed interim Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the midst of World War I (1916). Rising to the rank of ambassador (1919), he led the Brazilian embassy in Rome (1919); served as ambassador to France (1922-44); and represented Brazil at the League of Nations (1924-26).

The story of Souza-Dantas’ heroism begins in 1937, when Brazil began to severely restrict Jewish immigration during the reign of the “New State” with Brazilian President Getulio Vargas, issuing 12 different circulars limiting or barring the entry of Jews. On April 7, 1941, Vargas signed Circular No. 3,175, which not only barred Jews from entering Brazil, but also limited the ability of Jews already there to renew their visas.

As arduous as the general rules for granting visas to foreigners became, they were even more daunting for largely stateless Holocaust Jews, who were expected to somehow come up with documentation proving the absence of a criminal record, good conduct, good health, a lawful profession, and the ability to support themselves.

Souza-Dantas was the lone voice among Brazilian consuls who, in the face of a deluge of desperate people, refused to inflexibly enforce the regulations against Jewish immigration. Evidence of his humanity can be seen in this July 30, 1940 confidential correspondence to his Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which the Brazilian consul in Lyon wrote the following:

The question of visa applications assumes in this country, given the gravity of the moment, frightening proportions. I do not recall ever seeing such an avalanche. Having been informed that a career consulate had been created in Lyon, numberless people seek me out every day, with the highest recommendations [from Souza-Dantas], in order to overcome my resistance to their plans and desires…. Almost all of these individuals are Jewish, or Semitic origins, and only in rare cases, in my view, are they the sort of applicants that might interest us. I therefore believe that I have done a great service to Brazil by refusing, once and for all, to grant the visas they ask for…. If we don’t open our eyes, and take drastic measures, we will fill our country with the worst possible elements [i.e., the Jews]…

It was in this environment and in the same year that Souza-Dantas, as the Brazilian ambassador to the Vichy Government during the Nazi occupation, requested and – in an almost unimaginable feat, emblematic of the British government’s respect for him – received permission from the foreign minister to issue immigration visas to a limited number of French citizens, provided that none were “Semites.”

Although it was very unusual for an ambassador – of any country – to be directly involved in securing visas, Souza-Dantas personally granted diplomatic visas to hundreds of Jews seeking to escape the Vichy regime while taking great care to cover all evidence of their Jewishness, often forging the issue dates of the diplomatic visas to predate the subsequent ban on their use.

Souza-Dantas accepted appeals from all, regardless of ethnicity or country of origin and, unlike other diplomats at the time, acted with ultimate integrity and never sought personal gain, nor did he request any compensation for issuing the visas. In many cases, refugees testified that he rejected their offer of a gift; in one recorded case, he told a visa applicant, “If you want to give something, give it to the Red Cross.”

Souza-Dantas was driven by his Christian ethic and his horror at the Holocaust. He wrote early and frequently about the Jews being exterminated in Nazi death camps and, in one 1942 letter to the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, characterized the Nazi concentration camps as “something out of Dante’s Inferno.”

Among those he saved was 12-year-old Felix G. Rohatyn, who later became an American investment banker and advisor to the Democratic Party and is best known for helping prevent the bankruptcy of New York City in the 1970s and serving as the American ambassador to France. Rohatyn publicly acknowledged, “[I]f it weren’t for Souza-Dantas, instead of being here looking at the Statue of Liberty, I would have ended up burned to ashes in Auschwitz.”

When Souza-Dantas later faced charges for his illegal activities, President Vargas, unable to conceive that the former was simply acting as a compassionate humanitarian, blamed the influence of his Jewish wife. In 1933, Souza-Dantas had married (in a Catholic ceremony) Elise Meyer Stern, the wealthy Jewish daughter of Eugene M. Meyer; she was the widow of Abraham Stern, who had been secretary of Levi Strauss & Co., and the sister of Eugene I. Meyer, who purchased The Washington Post and turned the bankrupt daily into one of America’s most important newspapers. There is no evidence that Souza-Dantas was influenced by Elise, who remained in America throughout WWII.

Souza-Dantas knew very well that Germany, which had broad commercial interests in Brazil, was exerting tremendous pressure on Brazil to join the Axis and that the large wealthy German and Italian population in Brazil would be incensed were his activities to trigger Nazi action adverse to Brazilian economic interests become known. As such, resisting his government’s orders not only put his career at risk but also subjected his nation to possible Nazi punishment. (Brazil later [in January 1942] broke off diplomatic relations with Germany.)

The Brazilian government eventually began to suspect Souza-Dantas of unlawfully helping Jews and, in an early January 1941 correspondence, Osvaldo Aranha, Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Relations, stripped him of his authority to grant visas. In his letter, Aranha noted particularly that “the visas issued by the Embassy of Brazil Vichy have favored almost exclusively individuals of Jewish ethnic origin.” A few days later, on January 6, 1941, Brazil issued Circular 1,498 establishing a total ban on issuing visas to Jews, whom the government considered to be “impossible to assimilate.”

Ironically, Aranha later became a great Israeli hero, with streets named after him – including in Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva, and Ramat Gan – and a square dedicated to him in Jerusalem. As head of the Brazilian delegation to the United Nations, he lobbied passionately for the recognition of Israel and, as president of the UN General Assembly, he played an important role in Israel’s birth by delaying a vote to permit additional time for the Zionists to gather more support to pass the resolution establishing Israel as a state. It is clear from the record that Aranha sympathized with Souza-Dantas’ motivation for helping desperate people, but nonetheless felt compelled to fulfill his duty to uphold Brazilian law.

Despite complaints and investigations into his activities by other Brazilian diplomats as well as tighter Brazilian immigration, Souza-Dantas continued his dangerous efforts to save innocents from Nazi persecution. In 1941, he intervened to try to save 570 refugees aboard the S.S. Alsina – one of the last ships to leave Europe – including many Jews carrying his forged visas (which he had pre-dated to before January 1941).

The steamship was prevented by the British naval blockade from landing in Senegal, forcing it first to anchor in Dakar, where it sat for four months with the Jews confined in the cargo hold in tropical heat, and then in Casablanca, where it waited for several additional months. Local Moroccan authorities sent to local concentration camps most of the 150 Jewish passengers, including children, the elderly, and refugees lacking resources to leave Casablanca.

Throughout the entire period of the Alsina’s detainment, Souza-Dantas was unceasing in his efforts on behalf of the unwanted refugees, including sending countless telegrams to anyone who might act or persuade decision makers to take action on their behalf. When Alsina refugees who had the means to get to Brazil, or who had escaped the camps and managed to book passage, arrived in Brazil, they were denied entry on the grounds that their visas had expired during the many months they had waited in Senegal and Vichy-occupied Morocco. (The Alsina refugees were later [in November 1941] granted temporary asylum in Dutch-controlled Curacao.)

The arrival in Brazil of so many Jews from the Alsina carrying visas authorized by Souza-Dantas, coupled with his near-fanatical advocacy and activism on their behalf, heightened suspicions of his activities and eventually led to his recall by President Vargas to face a disciplinary hearing for his actions. Remarkably, even during the investigative phase of his case, he defied direct orders and continued to issue visas and save additional dozens of people.

In a proceeding headed by Vargas himself in October 1941, Souza-Dantas was convicted of violating the Brazilian anti-Jewish immigration policy, but he was ultimately able to escape punishment because he was technically retired, having previously reached the age of 65; because he was only working for the government without pay and on special request; and because Brazil had already cut off relations with Germany.

When Souza-Dantas was finally and officially removed from his position in 1943, Jewish immigration to Brazil had all but ended; only 11 Jews were admitted in 1943 and only six in 1944. When Brazil declared war on Germany in 1942, the Gestapo marched into the Brazilian Embassy in Vichy, arrested Souza-Dantas and his staff, and sent them to a concentration camp, where they remained for 14 months until they were released in exchange for German prisoners held in Brazil.

The original trade talks were for the release of Souza-Dantas only but, refusing to accept his own personal freedom while his fellow nationals remained captive, he prevailed upon the parties to negotiate the release of all the Brazilian prisoners.

Souza-Dantas returned to Brazil in May 1944, where his supporters planned a celebratory parade and a declaration of a national holiday in his honor, but President Vargas – irritated by Souza-Dantas’ popularity as a hero among the Brazilian masses – quashed the celebration and censored all positive media coverage of his exploits.

However, with the end of the Vargas government in April 1945 and the passing of his “New State” regime, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Souza-Dantas as head of the Brazilian delegation to the first United Nations General Assembly.

When Elise died in 1953, Souza-Dantas, who had signed a pre-nuptial agreement giving up all rights to his wife’s estate, moved to Paris, where he lived in poverty and died in obscurity in 1954. The French government placed a plaque that reads “A friend of France” in front of his house in Paris.

In 2013, he was honored during an International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony organized by Brazil’s Jewish Confederation and Brasilia’s Jewish Cultural Association and attended by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. On January 27, 2018 – designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations – the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation announced that a monument would be built in Souza-Dantas’ honor. A documentary about him called “Dear Ambassador,” directed by Brazilian film director Luis Fernando Goulart, was released in August 2018.

Yehi zichro baruch.

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