June 21, 2004

The Portuguese Who Saved Thousands During the War


Aristides de Sousa Mendes Defied His Government’s Rules

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 21, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Cardinal Renato Martino presided at a Mass in Rome in memory of a Portuguese consul who saved the lives of thousands of people, including 10,000 Jews, during World War II.

During his homily Thursday, the cardinal-president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace said it was men such as Aristides de Sousa Mendes who, during the dark years of the war, helped to save ”humanity’s honor.”

”Because of this we want to thank the Lord, who is able to inspire good even in contexts marked by the horror and demonic mystery of iniquity that constantly taints relations between persons and peoples,” the cardinal added.

The Mass was celebrated in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, at the suggestion of the Raoul Wallenberg International Foundation.

As a consul in Bordeaux, France, Sousa Mendes saved individuals persecuted by the Nazi regime, giving them Portuguese visas in violation of the neutrality of his government.

Beginning June 16, 1940, Sousa Mendes openly defied his government and began granting visas non-stop to all who came to his consulate until Germany bombed Bordeaux three days later. Most notable among the applicants were several Hapsburgs, members of the Austrian imperial family.

Upon learning the news, Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar ordered Sousa Mendes’ arrest and trial. Nevertheless, since the dictator kept the borders open, 1 million refugees were eventually able to escape using the route mapped out by Sousa Mendez through Spain.

Stripped from his position as consulate, he and his family fell into disfortune and he eventually died in poverty.

Thursday’s Mass was attended by Rabbi Mario Ablin, vice president of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and of the Angelo Roncalli International Committee, who brought greetings from Jerusalem.

Rabbi Ablin explained that to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Portuguese diplomat’s death, the Wallenberg Foundation is promoting the celebration of religious services in 30 churches and 28 synagogues in 28 countries.

The Wallenberg Foundation and the Roncalli Committee are dedicated to disseminating the message and remembering the deeds of individuals who risked their lives to save people persecuted during the Holocaust. Two such persons were Wallenberg and Apostolic Nuncio Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII.

At the end of the Mass, which was attended by numerous ambassadors to the Holy See, the foundation and committee announced the decision to award the Sousa Mendes 50th Anniversary Prize to Cardinal Martino.

The award is given to individuals whose personal conviction and public action reflect ethical principles, values of human solidarity and exemplary conduct.