February 7, 2007

The Jews Of Portugal: Contemporary Sites And Events Aristides de Sousa Mendes: A Moral Model For The World


Aristides de Sousa Mendes

The history of the Jews in Portugal, so imbued with the tragedy of the Inquisition (as outlined in the first article of this series), is especially unique if we consider that during the Holocaust, Portugal served as one of the main escape routes for Jews fleeing the Nazis.

New Yorkers became familiar with that aspect of Portuguese history on April 6, 2005, when ”Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Righteous Gentile who saved the lives of an estimated 30,000 Jews and others during the Nazi Holocaust,” was honored at the Museum of Jewish Heritage − A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. The tribute took place at a reception sponsored by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF), the Consulate General of Portugal in New York and the Consulate General of Brazil in New York.

Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, in June 1940, when Paris fell to the advancing Nazi army, and Jewish and other refugees fled southwestward in an effort to escape by crossing into neutral Spain. Sousa Mendes, with the support and assistance of his wife Angelina and his children, issued visas to an estimated 30,000 refugees against the orders of the Portuguese dictator Salazar, who ordered that no visas were to be granted to Jews. Sousa Mendes was removed from his position and disgraced in Portugal for his act of courage. He died a pauper.

The 2005 reception marked the Museum exhibit’s opening of the actual registry book used by Sousa Mendes for the first 2,000 visas issued on June 17, 1940, and of the pen used to enter those names. The reception also featured the presentation of humanitarian awards to three individuals who have worked to honor the memory and the example of Sousa Mendes: Robert Jacobvitz, Anne Treseder and Antonio Rodrigues.

In early 1986, they – along with descendants of Sousa Mendes – founded the International Committee for the Commemoration of Aristides de Sousa Mendes with branches in Israel, Portugal and Canada. They coordinated efforts with French and English-based organizations and successfully campaigned internationally for Sousa Mendes’ ”rehabilitation” in Portugal. Today, 20 years later, Sousa Mendes has been exonerated and honored by the Portuguese government, and his story is viewed as an example of moral courage by Portuguese school children and their parents.

Historians have estimated that one million refugees fled from the Nazis through Portugal during World War II. The precedent was forcibly created in 1940 by the selfless moral courage of Sousa Mendes, who paid in suffering for his deeds. First in Bordeaux, then in Bayonne and in the streets of Hendaye near the Spanish border, he indiscriminately issued transit visas for entry into Portugal to over 30,000 refugees. By the very magnitude of his daring and the startling number of refugees saved, Sousa Mendes opened up a refugee escape route where none had existed. It remained active through the war and was to be used by an estimated million refugees.

As related by recipients of the visas and his descendants, he opened that route by risking his reputation, profession, income, health, social standing and the future of his family. His campaign to save the persecuted Jews began in Bordeaux on June 17, when he issued thousands of visas with the help of the refugees themselves in an improvised assembly line.

In Bordeaux, the consulate continued to be besieged through June 19. That night, German planes bombed the city. Panic stricken, the crowds decamped and ran blindly for Bayonne and Hendaye, closer to the Spanish border. Sousa Mendes left his wife and sons in Bordeaux and followed the terror- driven refugees.

He made his way through the perilously congested road to Bayonne, where he found the Portuguese consulate encircled by some 5,000 persons with another 20,000 lined up along the streets. The consular staffers locked themselves in the consulate, and had devised a passageway for themselves through the roof. They strictly adhered to the orders from Lisbon not to issue visas to the refugees. Normal service rules gave Sousa Mendes jurisdiction over the Bayonne consulate, and he promptly assumed control by issuing visas to everyone. He reassured the locked-in Consul Machado, pledging to assume all responsibility. Sousa Mendes then set about to recruit all available hands and duplicated in Bayonne the Bordeaux ”visa assembly line.” Over the next 48 hours, thousands of peoples’ names were called out and they were handed the precious signature and consular stamp that would save their lives.

Meanwhile, Consul Machado wired Lisbon to report the breach of norms and telephoned Ambassador Pereira in Madrid. Although Pereira had no jurisdiction over consulates in France, he decided to travel to the frontier and see for himself. It was a trip that would put an end to the rescue effort and to Sousa Mendes’ career and livelihood.

On the afternoon of June 22, Sousa Mendes left Bayonne for Hendaye. France had agreed to the armistice terms dictated by Germany, and the refugees on the run became hysterical. They took to the road in a mad frenzy, pushing for the Spanish border. Sousa Mendes followed them. Soon, he was in the Streets of Hendaye, handing out large numbers of visas. At this stage, many of the ”visas” were odd scraps of paper, stating that the bearers had the right to enter Portugal, and asking if Spain would kindly grant them passage through her territory. The unorthodox documents kept the rescue effort going. In the meantime, two telegrams were sent from Lisbon, instructing Sousa Mendes to stop issuing visas. He did not receive either one.

The situation was tragic. Sousa Mendes later spoke of those he was not able to prevent from committing suicide before him. Rabbi Kruger, who had befriended Sousa Mendes when he served as consul in Antwerp, wrote that when he stood at Irun awaiting admittance, disputes arose between the refugees and the Spanish guards. The gate remained closed. This time, Sousa Mendes went inside to mediate. Even though he had no authority, he returned two hours later to open the gate himself. One more group scrambled into Spain to board trains for Portugal.

One of the recipients of the Sousa Mendes visas was Henrie Zvi Deutsch, who became a member of the Sousa Mendes Society and a Sousa Mendes Scholar. He later testified that Mendes was a devout Catholic, but he came from a Marrano background and was very proud of his Jewish heritage. Furthermore, he noted that what was not stated in the story of the Sousa Mendes visas is that these visas were not to individuals but to families; in the case of the Deutsch family, his father and uncle were issued one visa each that rescued nine individuals. According to Deutsch, the number of people rescued by Mendes far exceeds 30,000, and the actual total remains unknown.

Later on that afternoon of June 22, Portugal’s highest-ranking envoy to Spain, Ambassador Pereira, arrived at Irun to survey the unusual situation and became furious at what he saw. He wrote to Prime Minister Salazar and effectively brought about the recall of Sousa Mendes to Portugal. Salazar stripped Sousa Mendes of his diplomatic standing for ”disobeying orders,” rendering him a ”disgraced non-person.” He was charged on 14 counts of disobeying orders, and although he was an attorney, he was not permitted to defend himself.

Sousa Mendes and his family were now faced with living in poverty, as he was not able to retire with a pension or secure another position. The education of the younger children had to be cut short, and the older ones could not find jobs. The entire autocratic country turned their back on the courageous diplomat who dared to defy Salazar. The Sousa Mendes family began to take meals, along with refugees, at a Lisbon soup kitchen run by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).

The financial hardship and protracted humiliation took a toll. A few weeks before the end of the war, Sousa Mendes suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed. His wife and children stood by him. However, Angelina’s own health did not hold for long. She died at the age of 50 after languishing for six months in a state of agony. Sousa Mendes survived his wife by six years.

He hoped that his government would some day restore his good name and reputation, but it did not happen. With the help of the HIAS, Sousa Mendes’ traumatized children emigrated – one by one – to seek lives in Belgium, Africa, Canada and the United States. Aristides de Sousa Mendes died on April 3, 1954, a penniless outcast in his own country.

The heavily mortgaged estate at Cabanas de Viriato was sold at auction to pay his debts. The building was missing some doors, which the diplomat had burned over the years to keep warm. Then it was looted of its contents. Still standing, the home was in an advanced state of decay.

Next to the half-ruined house stands a memorial − a 40-foot tall monument attesting to the spirit of a man who told his government, ”I would stand with G-d against man, rather than with man against G-d.”

The villagers keep the memorial protected and now point to it with great pride. Following his ”exoneration” by the Portuguese government, the Aristides de Sousa Mendes (ASM) Foundation was established, and the estate was bought back by the descendants of the Righteous of the Gentiles.

In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Press, his grandson Antonius points out, ”We are going to dedicate one of the rooms to a library, open to the public. This library will receive books from various origins, namely the collection of a former diplomat (deceased). Most books will focus on human rights and international relations, as well as the history of WWII. Special attention will be given to the ‘Literature of the Shoah.’ We have the support of the Israeli Embassy for that matter.

”Another activity of the ASM Foundation is the organization of conferences and seminars on the Shoah and human rights, and democratic values. We currently go to schools and invite specialists on these topics. Since many schools are interested in the recovery of the ‘Casa do Passal,’ after its restoration, we will receive visits from schools and universities, community centers, etc. We want to organize those events in the house. For that purpose, an auditorium will be built in the basement. Of course, for this, the Foundation welcomes donations and grants, and will be very grateful for all contributions and assistance in the rehabilitation effort.”

As for the involvement of the family, seven children of Aristides and Angelina immigrated to the United States (three of them served in the U.S. armed forces and two were present in Normandy on D-day, June 6, 1944), and most of the grandchildren were born and live in America or Canada. Others live in Belgium and France.

Antonius continued, ”Two grandsons are directly involved in the Board of the Foundation: Alvaro, who is Sousa Mendes’ daughter’s son, is chairman and I – the son of Sousa Mendes’ son – am on the Board of the Foundation. All descendants of Sousa Mendes are entitled to be involved in the administering of the Foundation and may contribute with criticism and ideas/suggestions.”

*A unique tour of Israel and Jewish Portugal is being planned for Jewish Press readers in Spring/Summer 2007, in coordination with the Aristides Sousa Mendes Foundation. The tour will include a special event at the ASM estate, Caso do Passal, and tours to additional Jewish sites in Portugal.