A Portuguese diplomat who defied his government and helped save thousands of Jews during the Holocaust will be commemorated in special prayer services in dozens of countries over the next few days.
Correspondent Michael Freund reports that the initiative, launched by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, is in honor of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who served as Portuguese consul in Bordeaux during World War II. Haifa Chief Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Belgium, the Archbishop of Montreal, and Cardinal Renato Martino of the Vatican are among dozens of prominent religious leaders taking part.
In Israel, too, special prayers will be recited in Jerusalem, Netanya, Beit She’an, Hadera and elsewhere.
The Wallenberg Foundation, headed by Baruch Tenenbaum, chose today, June 17, to commemorate Sousa Mendes because it was on this date in 1940 that he began issuing the special visas to refugees. Despite explicit instructions from Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar barring the entry of Jewish refugees, Sousa Mendes issued 30,000 transit permits, including some 10,000 to Jews, enabling them to escape deportation to the German death camps. As a result, Sousa Mendes was denounced and stripped of his post. He died penniless in 1954.
Yad Vashem has recognized him as a Righteous Gentile. Asked once to explain why he was willing to disobey his superiors and risk his career in order to save Jews, Sousa Mendes is reported to have replied, ”I would rather be with G-d against men, than with men against G-d.”