February 20, 2008

Portugal Honors Diplomat Who Saved Jews


LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Portugal made good Tuesday on a promise to help restore the reputation of one of its diplomats who saved thousands of Jews during World War II, only to be fired in disgrace by his neutral government over fears of angering Nazi Germany.

Parliament Speaker Jaime Gama presided at the official launch of a Web site chronicling the life and work of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a career diplomat who died in poverty and obscurity more than 50 years ago.

”This is a gratifying day,” Gama said. ”Aristides de Sousa Mendes is a symbol for us all.”

The government-sponsored virtual museum — a database of photographs, videos and historic documents — meets the family’s demands for authorities to right a long-standing wrong, said one of the diplomat’s grandchildren, Alvaro de Sousa Mendes.

”It’s all part of a process to raise public awareness so that people can understand what went on,” he said.

Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, France, when the Germans invaded that country in 1940. Defying his government’s instructions, he issued visas to an estimated 10,000 Jews and 20,000 other people fleeing the Nazi advance.

For many the only way out was through Lisbon, Portugal’s Atlantic coast capital, and a Portuguese transit visa was needed to leave France and cross Spain. Sousa Mendes and a handful of staff worked furiously to issue visas to thousands who queued around the consulate for days.

”I’d rather be with God against man than with man against God,” Sousa Mendes said later.

But his actions got him recalled to Lisbon, where then-dictator Antonio Salazar fired him from Portugal’s diplomatic service. Shunned socially, denied a pension and barred from practicing law, he lived out his life in poverty with his wife and 14 children. He died in 1954.

Salazar’s dictatorship fell in a 1974 army coup but Sousa Mendes was largely forgotten until 1988, when the country’s political parties voted unanimously to make amends.

Parliament approved a bill that posthumously reinstated him as a diplomat, promoted him to the rank of ambassador and paid compensation to his surviving relatives, who used the money to repurchase the family house. They are trying to raise money to turn it into a museum.

In 1998, Sousa Mendes received a posthumous tribute from the European Parliament and two years later his efforts were commemorated at a United Nations ceremony.

The Web site, initially in Portuguese but due to be translated into several languages, is supported by foreign and national universities and institutions, including the German Foreign Ministry and Jewish associations.

”Bit by bit, he’s getting more widely known,” Alvaro de Sousa Mendes, the grandson, said.

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