Aristides de Sousa Mendes is likely a name you’ve never heard. Yet he is reported to have saved 30,000 people during the Holocaust from occupied France, 12,000 of them Jews.
Historian Yehuda Bauer has described it as “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
Sousa Mendes’ grandson Louis-Phillippe has said that “these refugees and their children have changed the world in the fields of architecture, poetry, scientific research, fashion design, publishing, information technology.” Indeed, our modern world might have well been quite different had it not been for Sousa Mendes.
“The children’s character Curious George exists because H. A. Rey and Margret Rey, from Germany, were rescued by Sousa Mendes,” Louis-Phillippe continued. “All paintings by Salvador Dali created past 1940 exist because Dali, a Spaniard who was on Franco’s enemy list, was rescued by Sousa Mendes. Even the Internet would be a different place. Jonah Peretti, co-founder of The Huffington Post and the inventor of BuzzFeed, is the grandson of Sousa Mendes visa recipient Adina Cherkin.”
It is thus curious that Sousa Mendes is not more well known. But Sousa Mendes’ erasure from history was not entirely accidental — the Portuguese government that employed him stripped him of his occupation and public standing upon his return home. The once well-respected man died penniless in 1954.
Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese diplomat with a curious character, remembered as a lover of life — and women. Long married to one of his cousins, with whom he had 14 children, he also supported a French woman and the child that she had with him out of wedlock. Prior to serving in France, he served in Zanzibar, Kenya, Brazil, the U.S. and Belgium.
Hellen Kaufmann, who runs the AJPN (Association of Anonymous, Righteous, and Persecuted People during the Nazi Period) in Bordeaux, France, has researched Mendes for some time. She told The Independent that Sousa Mendes had his quirks; for example, he once used consulate funds to have a giant figure of Christ made for his Belgian office.
“He did many crazy things in his life,” she said. “He was a funny man. He liked the life, the sex, to eat and music and dancing.”
Kaufmann told The Independent Sousa Mendes’ actions were crucial to the structure of post-War Europe. Not only did Sousa Mendes save thousands of Jews and political outcasts, but also the governments of Belgium and Poland, and the royal families of Luxembourg and Austria. These people later returned to Europe to govern the post-war continent.
“We had real people and honest people who escaped in June 1940 and came back after war to start again,” says Kaufmann, who pointed out that Sousa Mendes had no knowledge of the Holocaust to come, acting solely on intuition.
That quirky, almost rebellious quality might have been what pushed Sousa Mendes to defy his government when he had nearly everything to lose. When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Sousa Mendes was based in Bordeaux, a southwestern city in France. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese prime minister at the time, had instructed his diplomats to refuse visas to Jews and other political-undesirables as an appeasement to Hitler. At this time Portugal was “officially neutral yet unofficially pro-Hitler, and under the dictatorial rule of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, issued a directive – the infamous Circular 14 – to all its diplomats to deny safe haven to refugees, including explicitly Jews, Russians, and stateless persons who could not freely return to their countries of origin,” according to the Sousa Mendes Foundation.
But Sousa Mendes believed this decree went contrary to the values and law of his country. A trained attorney, Sousa Mendes went into a state of crisis, not sure of what to do. ”
I cannot allow all you people to die,” he announced to the consulate staff two days later, who made note of his historic statement. “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 shan’t resign for all that. The only way I can respect my faith as a Christian is to act in accordance with the dictates of my conscience.”
In addition, Sousa Mendes had befriended a rabbi in Bordeaux, who himself had already fled Poland due to anti-Semitism some years prior. The rabbi, sensing what was to come from the Nazi occupation, had begged Sousa Mendes to help his family flee France. The rabbi had several children; Sousa Mendes was a father himself. He had even sent most of those children home to Portugal for their safety — only two of his sons, already adults, remained with him and his wife in Bordeaux. Sousa Mendes sympathized with the rabbi and his family, and vowed to save them.
The Independent sums up what happened next:
“On 17 June a production line was set up, at which he issued 30,000 visas, passports and travel documents. (After two days at the consul, Sousa Mendes continued at the border towns of Bayonne and Hendaye until stopped on 23 June.) Twelve thousand of those helped were Jews. Others who found salvation include the last Crown Prince of Austria, Otto von Habsburg, the Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery and the entire Belgian cabinet. The stateless and the desperate queued around the clock, outside, on the stairs and inside his flat, just to be seen.”
Sousa Mendes’ visas allowed people to flee from France by crossing its southern border into Spain, from there onto Portugal, from where they could travel elsewhere. He was extremely liberal in granting visas; in some cases, he even stamped simple pieces of paper when refugees did not have passports.
Despite the likely repercussions, Sousa Mendes always stood by his actions. “Even if I am dismissed [from the Portuguese diplomatic corps],” he said, “I can only act as a Christian, as my conscience tells me.” Similarly, Yad Vashem reports him as explaining his actions thusly: “If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian [Hitler], surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews.” Yad Vashem honored Sousa Mendes with the title “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1966.
Sousa Mendes did end up having to pay for his deeds. For not obeying orders, he was brought before a disciplinary panel in Lisbon and stripped of his diplomatic title, with Salazar declaring him mentally unfit. Sousa Mendes’ diplomatic status was restored only in 1988, when the Portuguese government granted him total rehabilitation and promoted him to ambassador.
Mendes was also barred from practicing law, in which he had been educated. In essence, he became a political outcast within his home country, as the Independent recounts:
“People crossed the road in his presence during those years of domiciled exile. All but one of his children left the country in order to start anew. Some of his family turned on him in anger. For 14 years the honorable consul was a pariah, marooned in his family home of Passal in the heartland of Portugal. He died in 1954, six years after [wife] Maria Angelina, in abject poverty in a Franciscan monastery.”
Now, some 70 years later, efforts are being made to make Sousa Mendes’ story more well known. In the U.S., there is the Sousa Mendes Foundation, which is part of larger Portuguese organization founded in 2010 by the children of Sousa Mendes and survivors of visa recipients. Lisa Mattis, one such descendent who as a girl had heard stories of the Portuguese diplomat who had saved her family, contacted Sousa Mendes’ grandchildren via Facebook three years ago. From there, she learned of the family’s efforts to restore his name.
According to Newsday, one of Sousa Mendes’ grandsons told Mattis about his family’s dream to turn his grandfather’s home, long since left in shambles, into a museum and humanitarian center. It spurred Mattis to form the U.S.-based Sousa Mendes Foundation along with Sousa Mendes’ American descendants, recipients of the visas, and the Portuguese-American community. Their aim is to build the center, including a human rights library, at the diplomat’s former home.
Other initiatives — outside of the foundation — include naming a bridge in Bordeaux after Sousa Mendes; that petition was brought last year by Portuguese parliament members, according to the Portuguese-American Journal.
“For decades, the Bordeaux events and their aftermath were considered by my family as our private drama, a succession of sad events that needed to be accepted in silence,” Sousa Mendes’ grandson wrote last year in the Huffington Post. “But now, the extraordinary concerted efforts of many dedicated people to widely disseminate information on Sousa Mendes’ life and values hearten us. Such initiatives mark the passage of the family from pain and sorrow toward a state of serenity.”