April 11, 2005

Acts of Quiet Courage

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Felix Rohatyn knew that he and a handful of relatives had been lucky to get out of Nazi-occupied France in the early-1940′s, when he was 12 years old. But there were details about the harrowing escape that have only recently come to light.

Mr. Rohatyn, now 76, is the financier who helped save New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970′s and later served as ambassador to France during the Clinton administration. His family was Jewish, and originally from Poland. In the fall of 1940 the dark night of the Holocaust was spreading across France with terrifying speed. Foreign-born Jews were in the most immediate peril. Scores of thousands would be turned over to the Germans, with most being sent to Auschwitz.

About a month ago, in his Park Avenue office, Mr. Rohatyn took a call from a stranger with information that would bring the saga of his family’s escape into much sharper focus. The man said he had photocopies of the visas that were used to get the family out of France. He wondered if Mr. Rohatyn would be interested in seeing them.

”Of course I was interested,” said Mr. Rohatyn. ”So this fellow showed up, a very nice man, and he had a photostat of these papers, these documents, with my picture, my mother’s picture, my stepfather’s picture …

”I had never known how we obtained the visas. They got us out of France about six months before the Germans started sending all the foreign Jews off to Auschwitz. I was never able to figure it out. And everyone – my mother, my stepfather – everyone who was involved in this process is dead.”

The ”very nice man” who seemed to have appeared out of the blue was Joao Crisostomo, a vice president of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. He was putting together a program to honor the heroic efforts of two diplomats – Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas, the wartime Brazilian ambassador to France, and Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux.

Jews attempting to flee France needed a visa from a government that was willing to accept Jewish refugees, or that had not been informed that the refugees were Jewish. Securing these visas was a dangerous and agonizingly difficult process. These two diplomats, against the wishes of their own governments, provided crucial assistance, including the desperately needed visas, to Jews and others who would have faced almost certain death by remaining in France.

The efforts of de Sousa Mendes, who was eventually ousted by his government and died in poverty, have been widely recognized. But de Souza Dantas, who helped at least 800 Jews escape the Nazis and came to be known as the ”Schindler of Brazil,” has not gotten a great deal of attention. He died in 1954.

It was de Souza Dantas who provided the visas that saved young Felix Rohatyn and his relatives. Their flight to freedom took them from Marseilles (where they received their papers) to Algeria, Casablanca, Lisbon, Brazil and ultimately the United States.

Mr. Rohatyn spoke softly but with great emotion of the already powerful memories that were brought into even higher relief as he stared at the photos of himself at age 12, his mother, his stepfather and his stepfather’s mother. He recalled a mind-numbing incident when the family, with his mother driving, came upon a German checkpoint ”and a line of cars where you couldn’t turn around.”

That they would be seized seemed inevitable. But just as they reached the checkpoint, the soldier inspecting each vehicle’s occupants decided to take a cigarette break. He waved the family through.

”It was a miracle,” Mr. Rohatyn said.

In a time of war, torture, terror and moral confusion – the present – it can be helpful to look back at an era, not so long ago, that was much worse. With their quiet acts of courage, men like de Souza Dantas and de Sousa Mendes showed us the resistance to evil that humans, often so faint-hearted in their daily lives, are capable of mounting.

The tribute to the two diplomats was held last week at the Museum of the Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in lower Manhattan. Mr. Rohatyn embraced Mr. Crisostomo and thanked him.

”This is a very emotional moment for me,” Mr. Rohatyn said. He noted that he was No. 447 on the list of people receiving visas, and that without de Souza Dantas’s assistance he and his family would have been doomed.

”Too few of us have had the opportunity to be thankful,” he said.