Portuguese Diplomat Finally Celebrated for Saving Jews During WW II

July 10, 2013 3:22 pm 1 comment

Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Photo: Wikipedia.

When Aristides de Sousa Mendes died in 1954 he was broke and shamed, this despite his heroic activities during the Second World War to save Jews and other “enemies” of the Third Reich, The New York Times writes.

Sousa Mendes, Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux when Germany invaded France, provided about 30,000 people with Portuguese visas to escape Nazi persecution, according to the Sousa Mendes Foundation, but when Portuguese authorities found out about his activities he was dismissed from the diplomatic service and stripped of his pension rights.

Though his image has since been rehabilitated by the Portuguese government, and his wartime efforts never went completely unrecognized—in 1966 he was awarded by Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”—only recently has an effort been made to track down those whom he helped, writes the New York Times.

Mr. Sousa Mendes started ignoring Lisbon’s orders and delivering his visas in 1939, only months before Germany’s invasion of France, in part because his twin brother, a fellow Portuguese diplomat stationed in Warsaw, told him about Nazi atrocities there.

Since December 2011, the Sousa Mendes Foundation has managed a database of the people he saved, built in large part on a visa registry book discovered in Bordeaux. So far, the Times writes, the foundation has identified about 3,200 of the estimated 30,000 people he helped to save.

A recent pilgrimage along the route taken by some of those who he aided ended in Cabanas De Viriato, a small town in central Portugal, where Mr. Sousa Mendes was born and is buried in a family crypt. There, the participants held a remembrance ceremony.

Some of those taking part in the pilgrimage had not returned to Portugal since the war. Many descendants had in fact not heard of Mr. Sousa Mendes until they were contacted by the foundation.

Harry Oesterreicher, the treasurer of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, told the Times that it was disappointing to see the limited recognition Mr. Sousa Mendes had received in Portugal, pointing to the dilapidation of the family mansion in Cabanas De Viriato.

The foundation is now hoping to turn the house into a museum of tolerance. Last month the Portuguese authorities pledged an initial contribution of about $400,000.

Asked about Portugal’s attitude toward Sousa Mendes, Celeste Amaro, an official from its Cultural Ministry, told the Times, “our democracy is young, and we still need to do a lot more to understand what happened in our past.” Portuguese people, she added, “really need to know better his history and what a great man he was.”

Leon Moed, 73, a resident of the United States, was just 4 when his family fled France with the help of a visa, but he recalled how his father once “said something about having gotten the visa from a special person, but that was it.”

Almost all the participants in the pilgrimage were Jewish, though Jews accounted for only about a third of the Sousa Mendes visa recipients, with the list also including members of the Hapsburg and Luxembourg royal families and Belgian cabinet members, as well as artists like Salvador Dalí and his Russian-born wife, Gala.

Jennifer Hartog, who lives in Toronto, told the Times she wanted to write a book about her father and other members of her Dutch Jewish family. She said that the magnitude of Sousa Mendes’s own personal sacrifice was not lost on her.

“You hear about people who argued that they couldn’t help because it was wartime and they had their own family to worry about, but here was a man with a career, a wife and an incredible amount of children who certainly did do something for others,” Hartog said.

1 Comment

  • H. Lowenhar

    We should all be grateful for those courageous few who knowingly sacrificed theirs careers and the futures of their families, even putting their lives at risk to save the lives of so many strangers. Perhaps an awareness of Jewish lineage (as mendes/mendez is a known Jewish surname) was the beginning of his efforts, but most of those he rescued were not Jewish, just refugees desperate to escape the Nazi dragnet.

    During the war, it was those few who redeemed the word “human” from the depths of disgrace into which it had fallen.

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