July 26, 2001

The Consul who helped 30 thousand people to escape from Nazism


They are only papers. Visas signed in September 1940 by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Consul of Portugal to Bordeaux, France, which allowed the rescue of 30,000 people. Photographs of refugees in Lisbon, showing the loss in their eyes. The order of dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who expelled him from the diplomatic service because he disobeyed him and condemned him to die in misery. Papers, which constitute testimonies of pain and hope.

With the documentary exhibition Vidas Poupadas (Saved lives), the Embassy of Portugal and the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation pay tribute to one of the many men who, illuminated by courage, rescued thousands of people during the Second World War. The exhibition can be visited from Mondays to Fridays until August 10 in Maipú 942, 17th floor, from 9.30 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. and from 2.30 p.m. until 5p.m.

The facsimiles exposed are not enough to tell Aristides de Sousa Mendes´ achievement, who was born in 1885 in the town of Cabanas de Viriato, in northern Portugal. Nevertheless, they explain why a catholic, conservative, anti-republican and monarchic aristocrat decided to rebel and face consequences.

He took diplomacy at the University of Coimbra. In the British Guyana, Zanzíbar, Brazil, The United States, Spain and Belgium were born the 14 sons he had with his wife Angelina.

The war

He was far from wishing the obscure destination of General Consul In Bordeaux, where Salazar sent him in 1938. In September of the year 1939, that port in southern France became a dangerous place. War had just started and Sousa Mendes sent his sons to Portugal; only Pedro Nuno and Jose, the elder brothers, remained with him and his wife.

The first refugees started to approach his office. Salazar’s guideline was strict: on behalf of neutrality and alignment with his neighbor, Generalissimo Franco, visas should not be issued neither to Jews nor to people who could not return to their fatherland.

For those who could not afford a ship ticket from Bordeaux, the alternative was Portugal, because the Spanish gendarmes allowed going through with a visa of that country. Sousa Mendes allowed himself some disobediences, which were observed by the Portuguese police in the border.

In May, due to the German advance, the consulate was besieged by thousands of desperate people. Austrian, Polish and Czech officers. Anti-nazis from France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Intellectuals, artists and journalists who had condemned fascism. Thousands of Jews who, if caught, would have been sent to extermination camps. Rabbi Chaim Kruger and his family, whom the Consul took to his residence, were among them.

He sent hundreds of coded telegrams requesting authorization to issue visas. In June, due to the imminence of the French- German armistice, the soldiers surrounded the consulate. The diplomat opened the doors to the refugees. The reply from Lisbon was categorical: no visas.

Elderly people. Pregnant women. Children whose parents had died in the routes because of the German bombs. Thousands of hungry people sleeping on the floor and the stairs. Sousa Mendes fell ill. In three days his hair went white.

Thousands of visas

On the fourth day, June 16, 1940, he got up and faced the crowd: ”I cannot allow you to die. Most of you are Jewish and our Constitution established that neither religion nor political beliefs can be used as an excuse to reject the staying in Portugal”.

The Consul created a ”line of assembly” with his sons, his secretary and the Rabbi. The free visa marathon lasted three days and included the Austrian Imperial family, the Habsburg. On June 19, Germany bombed Bordeaux.

Sousa Mendes traveled together with the terrified crowd that ran way towards the south. In Toulouse he authorized the vice-consul to stamp passports. In Bayonne he signed more visas. While Salazar was sending officials to stop him, the Consul continued stamping his name in Biarritz and Hendaye, already on the border and even on the bridge. He wrote the magic signature on any document and even in pieces of newspapers. On June 23 he was caught.

The dictator received the gratitude of the refugees, he kept the borders open -through the route established by Sousa Mendes a million people escaped -, but he ordered to judge him. To the catholic convictions of the Consul, the disciplinary council opposed the violations to the rules. Sousa Mendes was removed form office and his name prohibited for decades.

There was no job for the sons. The family started eating with the refugees at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Confined in Cabanas de Viriato, Sousa Mendes suffered hemiplegia. In 1948 Angelina died. One by one, the HIAS took his sons out of the country. After the diplomat’s death, the house was put up for auction. All the furniture had already been sold; the doors had become firewood.

Only in 1987, President Mario Soares publicly asked for forgiveness to his relatives. The 10,000 Jews who owed him their lives had not forgotten him. The monument erected opposite to his house resume his spirit: ”I would rather be with God against men, than with men against God”.