Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches, GCC, OL (July 19, 1885 - April 3, 1954) was a Portuguese diplomat who ignored and defied the orders of his own government for the safety of war refugees fleeing from invading German military forces in the early years of World War II. Between June 16 and June 23, 1940, he frantically issued Portuguese visas free of charge, to over 30,000 refugees seeking to escape the Nazi terror, 12,000 of whom were Jews.


[edit] Early life

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was born in Cabanas de Viriato, in Carregal do Sal, in the district of Viseu, Beira region, Portugal, on July 9, 1885. His family had aristocratic origins, since his mother Maria Angelina Ribeiro de Abranches de Abreu Castelo-Branco was a maternal granddaughter of the 2nd Viscount of Mides. His father, Jos de Sousa Mendes, had been a Judge on the Supreme Court, and Sousa Mendes' twin brother Csar would become Foreign Minister in 1932–33 under the Antnio de Oliveira Salazar regime.

Sousa Mendes studied law at the University of Coimbra, together with his twin, and both obtained their law degrees in 1908. In 1908, he married his childhood sweetheart, Maria Angelina Ribeiro de Abranches (born August 20, 1888); they eventually had 14 children, born in the various countries where he served. Shortly after his marriage, he began the diplomatic career that would take him and his family around the world. In his early career, he served in Zanzibar, Kenya, Brazil, and the United States before being assigned to Antwerp, Belgium in 1931. In Belgium he met the Nobel Prize winners Maurice Maeterlinck and Albert Einstein. After almost ten years of dedicated service in Belgium, Sousa Mendes was assigned to the consulate of Bordeaux in France.

[edit] His acts as diplomat

The consul was still in Bordeaux at the outbreak of World War II and the invasion of France by the Nazi army of Adolf Hitler. Salazar managed to maintain Portugal's neutrality in the war, but his own personal opinions favoured Hitler as far as the combat against Communism was concerned. On November 11, 1939, he issued orders that consuls were not to issue Portuguese visas to "foreigners of indefinite or contested nationality; the stateless; or Jews expelled from their countries of origin". This order was followed only six months later by one stating that "under no circumstances" were visas to be issued without prior case-by-case approval from Lisbon. Similar policies against Jewish immigration were adopted much earlier by the United States and the United Kingdom[citation needed].

The Jewish Virtual Library biography of Sousa Mendes records the consul's response as follows:

Within days of the new orders, Sousa Mendes was taken to task for having granted a visa to a Viennese refugee, Professor Arnold Wizrntzer. Called to task by his superiors, Sousa Mendes answered: "He informed me that, were he unable to leave France that very day, he would be interned in a concentration [read, detention] camp, leaving his wife and minor son stranded. I considered it a duty of elementary humanity to prevent such an extremity."[1]

Thus it was in a deliberate act of disobedience that Sousa Mendes issued an estimated 30,000 visas to Jews and other persecuted minorities: political dissidents, army officers from occupied countries, and priests and nuns. These visas were not all to individuals, but sometimes to families; in at least one case, the visa covered a family of nine people.[2] Sousa Mendes was inspired to this act in part through his friendship with Rabbi Chaim (Haim) Kruger[3], who had fled to France from Antwerp.

The earliest of these visas were issued in the months between the 1939 and mid-1940 decrees, a period during which he attempted to protect his family by sending all but two sons home to Portugal and sending constant telegrams to Lisbon with coded requests for approval of the visas, in order to preserve his post while obeying his conscience. The majority of the visas, however, were issued after a harrowing three-day crisis of conscience in mid-June, 1940, shortly after Franco changed the status of Spain from "neutral" to "non-belligerent," [1], which suggested time was running out for Portugal to follow its neighbor. The consul offered a visa to his friend the rabbi, who responded, "I can't accept a visa for us and leave my people behind."[4] The distraught consul took to his bed in confusion from June 14 to the 16th. From his crisis, Sousa Mendes emerged on June 17, 1940, determined to obey what he called a "divine power" and grant visas to everyone in need, at whatever cost to himself.

[edit] June 17-July 8: the French-Portuguese exodus

Working feverishly with Rabbi Kruger, the two remaining Sousa Mendes sons and their mother, and a few refugees, the consul formed an assembly line that processed visas all through that day and well into the night. They made whatever changes were necessary to the usual procedure: the consul signing with just his surname, not registering the visas or collecting fees, and stamping visas on pieces of paper. The sense of urgency was heightened even more when Marshal Philippe Ptain announced that day that France would sign a peace agreement with Germany. The assembly line kept working all through the following day. A delegate of the House of Habsburg, after having to wait his turn in the seemingly endless line, left with 19 visas for the imperial family of the Archduke, who later returned in person to obtain an additional stack of visas for Austrian refugees.

On into June 19, the assembly line marched on through stacks and stacks of visas, even as the city was bombed by German planes. At this point, Sousa Mendes rushed to the consulate at Bayonne, near the Spanish border where his visas were being honored for the crowds rushing out of the country. Finding that consulate overwhelmed, he took over responsibility from his subordinate there, Consul Machado, and set up a second assembly line to process thousands more exit documents. (Machado reported this behavior to Portugal's ambassador to Spain, Pedro Teotnio Pereira, whose maternal grandfather was German, who favored Germany and worried that accepting those unacceptable to Hitler would ruin Portugal's relationship with Franco; Teotnio Pereira promptly set out for the French border.)

Sousa Mendes continued on to Hendaye to assist there, thus narrowly missing two cablegrams from Lisbon sent June 22 to Bordeaux and Bayonne ordering him to stop even as France's armistice with Germany became official. In an article for a religious magazine in 1996, his son John Paul de Abranches told the story:

"As his diplomatic car reached the French border town of Hendaye, my father encountered a large group of stranded refugees for whom he had previously issued visas. Those people had been turned away because the Portuguese government had phoned the guards, commanding, 'Do not honor Mendes's signature on visas.'"
"Ordering his driver to slow down, Father waved the group to follow him to a border checkpoint that had no telephones. In the official black limousine with its diplomatic license tags, Father led those refugees across the border toward freedom."[4]

Sousa Mendes traveled to the border at Irun on June 23, where he personally raised the gate to allow disputed passages into Spain to occur. It was at this point that Ambassador Teotnio Pereira arrived at Irun, declared Sousa Mendes mentally incompetent and invalidated all further visas.[5] An Associated Press story the next day reported that some 10,000 persons attempting to cross over into Spain were excluded because authorities no longer granted recognition to their visas.[1]

As Sousa Mendes continued the flow of visas, Salazar sent a telegram on June 24 recalling him to Portugal, an order he received upon returning to Bordeaux on June 26 but followed only slowly, not arriving in Portugal until July 8. Along the way he issued Portuguese passports to refugees now trapped in occupied France, saving them by preventing their deportation to concentration camps.[1]

[edit] Dishonor and disgrace

He saved an enormous number of lives, but lost his career for it. In 1941, Salazar lost political trust in Sousa Mendes and forced the diplomat to quit his career, subsequently ordering as well that no one in Portugal show him any charity.[6] He found he also could not resume his law career, as he was prevented from registration, and he was made to surrender his foreign-issue driver's license.[4] Just before the war's end in 1945, he suffered a stroke that left him at least partially paralyzed. In his later years, the formerly much-honored diplomat was abandoned by most of his colleagues and friends and often blamed by some of his close family members.[7] Aided by a local Jewish refugee agency – which had begun to feed the family and pay their rent upon discovering the situation – the children moved to other countries one by one in search of opportunities they were now denied in Portugal, though all accounts by them indicate they never blamed their father or regretted his decision. His wife, Angelina, died in 1948. Stripped of his pension, he died in poverty on April 3, 1954, still in disgrace with his government.

This ill-treatment by his government for acts considered heroic in other countries was not unique to Sousa Mendes. Others similarly dishonored include Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania; Carl Lutz, the Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest, Hungary; and Paul Grninger, chief of police in the Swiss canton of Sankt-Gallen (Saint-Gall). Ironically, the actions that caused Salazar to dismiss his diplomatic representative brought considerable praise to him and to Portugal, seen internationally as a haven of hospitality for refugee Jews; the magazine Life called Aristides "the greatest Portuguese since Henry the Navigator" (July 29, 1940).[1][4][7]

[edit] Posthumous honors

Aristides de Sousa Mendes plaza in Vienna

Family members seeking to clear his name sought to have his story published in magazines and began to contact Jewish visa recipients living in New York. In 1966 Sousa Mendes was honored at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust as one of the "Righteous Among The Nations," one of the first steps in the long journey. In 1986, inspired by the election of a civilian president in Portugal, his son John Paul Abranches began to circulate a petition to the Portuguese president within his adopted country, the United States. As journalists began to tell the story, it came to the attention of two members of the California delegation of the United States House of Representatives, Portuguese-American Rep. Tony Coelho and Rep. Henry Waxman, who had a family member saved by Sousa Mendes' signature. These two men introduced a resolution in Congress to recognize his humanitarian actions, a resolution that was passed in 1987.

Also in 1987, the Portuguese Republic began to rehabilitate Sousa Mendes' memory and granted a posthumous Order of Liberty medal, one of that country's highest honors, although the consul's diplomatic honors still were not restored. On March 18, 1988 the Portuguese parliament officially dismissed all charges, restoring him to the diplomatic corps by unanimous vote and honoring him with a standing ovation. He was promoted to the rank of Ambassador[8] He also was issued the Cross of Merit for his actions in Bordeaux. In December of that year, the U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, Edward Rowell presented copies of the congressional resolution from the previous year to Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes, one of the sons who had helped in the assembly line at Bordeaux, and to President M¡rio Soares at the Pal¡cio de Belm. In 1994 former President Soares dedicated a bust of Sousa Mendes in Bordeaux, along with a commemorative plaque at 14 quai Louis-XVIII, the address at which the consulate at Bordeaux had been housed.[9]

In 1995, a commemorative stamp was issued in Portugal.[1]

In 2004,the 50th anniversary of Sousa Mendes' death, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Angelo Roncalli Committee organized more than 80 commemorations around the world. Religious, cultural and educational activities took place in 30 countries in the five continents. [10]

A great homage was done in memory of Aristides Sousa Mendes at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 11 May and 10 November 2005, in a benefit performance on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of UNESCO and the fortieth anniversary of Portugal's admittance. The baritone Jorge Chamin gave a recital at the Great Hall. The French writer Jean Lacouture wrote that "in more than 50 years as a listener all over the world, I never heard such an incredible performance. What a marvellous homage to this great man!"

The mansion that Sousa Mendes had to abandon and sell in the poverty of his final years was left for decades to rot and decay, and at one time was to be razed and replaced by a hotel. However, with reparations funds given by the Portuguese government to Sousa Mendes' heirs in 2000, the family decided to create the Aristides de Sousa Mendes Foundation (Fundao Aristides de Sousa Mendes, in Portuguese). With assistance from government officials, the foundation purchased the family home in order to develop a museum in his honor.[11] The house was classified as a Portuguese National Monument on February 3, 2005. The two events at UNESCO raised a 6,000 euro donation for the foundation; even so, the foundation's president said in 2006 that the organization was finding it difficult to raise sufficient additional funds for the renovation.[12]

On 14 January 2007, he was voted into the top ten of the poll show Os Grandes Portugueses (English: The Greatest Portuguese), on 25 March 2007, the day of the results revelation, he was voted into third place, behind deceased communist leader lvaro Cunhal (runner-up) and deceased dictator Antnio de Oliveira Salazar (winner).

In February 2008, Portuguese Parliamentary Speaker Jaime Gama led a session which launched a virtual Museum, on the World-Wide Web; it offers access to photographs and other documents chronicling Mendes' life. The site includes content in Portuguese, but translations into other languages are planned.[8]

[edit] Notable people issued visas by Sousa Mendes

[edit] Quotations

I will not condone murder, therefore I disobey and continue to disobey Salazar.

I would rather stand with God against man, than with man against God.

If thousands of Jews suffer because of a non-Jewish demon [Hitler], then surely a Christian can suffer with so many Jews.[13][14]

I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ a b c d e Aristides de Sousa Mendes: The Jewish Virtual Library
  2. ^ "Portuguese Righteous Gentile," article by Rufina Bernardetti Silva Mausenbaum, Portugal On Line (Portugal Em Linha)
  3. ^ John Paul Abranches Highlights Denver Conference (Commemorating 500th Anniversary of Forced Conversion of Portuguese Jews), reprinted from HaLapid Fall 1997
  4. ^ a b c d "A Matter of Conscience," by John Paul Abranches, Guideposts, June 1996, pp. 2-6.
  5. ^ The Jewish Virtual Library article notes that a Spanish newspaper headline the next day announced the sudden insanity of "the Consul of Portugal in Bayonne," an ironic error that labeled Sousa Mendes' accuser as the one who had lost his faculties.
  6. ^ Sousa Mendes, With God Against Men, The Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (Argentina)
  7. ^ a b Words of Remembrance by one of his sons, Luis Felipe, at
  8. ^ a b AT&T News February 19, 2008
  9. ^ Picture available at Aristides Sousa Mendes-Le juste de Bordeaux (The Righteous One of Bordeaux) - site in French and Portuguese
  10. ^ "International acknowledgment of Sousa Mendes on the 50th anniversary of his death" The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation
  11. ^ Aristides de Sousa Mendes: A Testimonial (retrieved August 26, 2006)
  12. ^ Foundation with "difficulties" in restoring house, LUSA Agency, February 2, 2006 (article in Portuguese)
  13. ^
  14. ^
  • This article was expanded partially with material from the articles on Sousa Mendes in the Portuguese and French Wikipedias.

11. [ de Sousa Mendes, o Cnsul injustiado, by Diana Andringa, Portugal, 1983

[edit] Further reading

  • Fralon, Jose Alain (author) and Graham, Peter (translator). A Good Man in Evil Times: The Story of Aristides De Sousa Mendes–The Man Who Saved the Lives of Countless Refugees in World War II. 2001, Carroll & Graf Publishers, ISBN 0-7867-0848-4.

[edit] External links

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