On Thursday, April 3, 2003, a presentation of three conferences was organized by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Portuguese Embassy in Argentina, at the National Library of the Republic of Argentina, concerning the former Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, savior of thousands of Jews and others persecuted during the Second World War.
Antonio de Almeida Ribeiro, Portuguese Ambassador in Argentina; Lic. Silvio Maresca, Director of the National Library; and, Beatriz Gurevich of the Wallenberg Foundation spoke on the occasion before a large gathering.
Around 200 high school level students of the ORT Institute, the Fatima Institute of Martinez, the Olivos Tarbut School, and the Educational Center New Horizon participated.
Dr. Natalio Wengrower, Vice President of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation closed the ceremony by remembering the words of Sousa Mendes inscribed on the monument that remembers him in Portugal: ´´I prefer to be with God against men than with men against God´´.
Wengrower delivered a Commemorative Medal of Sousa Mendes, especially minted by the Wallenberg Foundation to the National Library in the name of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. The gift received by Silvio Maresca will go on to form a part of the heritage of the institution.
In another place, on the same day of April 3, the New York branch of the Wallenberg Foundation organized a tribute to Sousa Mendes in the Newark Museum, State of New Jersey, U.S.A., together with the Portuguese Foundation of Culture and Education, to commemorate the 49th Anniversary of his death.
On that occasion, Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey Senator; Sharpe James, Newark Mayor; Leon Suprenant, Editor in Chief of the magazine ´´Lay Witness´´, and the journalistic media ´´The Luso-Americano´´ were awarded for their unwavering commitment to upholding the humanitarian values of solidarity. The awards were presented in the name of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation by Mr. Joao Crisóstomo and its founder, Baruch Tenembaum, who made reference to the pacifist leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech on the 35th year of his death.
The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating with the values of solidarity and courage carried on in practice by thousands of saviors during the Holocaust. It counts with the support of more than 50 heads of state, prestigious intellectuals, and Nobel Prize Laureates in different categories.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese General Council in Bordeaux, France, in the spring of the year 1940 when the Nazi ‘blitzkrieg’ (lightening war) broke through the French defences in Sedan on May 14th.
A crowd of refugees of diverse nationalities, among them thousands of Jews, arrived the French city with the hope of obtaining transit visas enabling them to enter Portugal from where America could be reached
Despite strict directives given by Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar prohibiting diplomats from providing visas to ‘Jews expelled from their countries of origin’, Sousa Mendes issued thousands of transit permits, not only in Bordeaux but also in Bayonne and on the streets of Hendaya, on the Spanish border. Thanks to his intervention around thirty thousand refugees received help, among them ten thousand Jews who avoided death in Nazi extermination camps. ‘I will grant a visa to whoever needs it, whether they can afford it or not. I will act in accordance to what my Christian conscience tells me’, he used to say.
As a result of his disobedience he was expelled from the Portuguese Foreign Service and deprived on an income and for decades his name could not be uttered publicly in Portugal. He lived the rest of his life as an outcast, eventually losing his family home and dying in almost abject poverty on April 3rd, 1954. It was only in 1987 that then- President Mario Soares granted Sousa Mendes with the Portuguese Order of Freedom and publicly apologised to his relatives for the injustices committed.
April 3 2003
I greatly regret that I cannot be in attendance tonight. It would have been a privilege to join so many close friends in Newark to accept what to me is a very special award. I accept this year’s Aristides de Sousa Mendes Commemorative Medal with gratitude to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation for this honor. I am pleased to join the illustrious group of previous recipients that includes the current President of Portugal, Dr. Jorge Sampaio, and the former President of Portugal, Dr. Mario Soares. I send hearty congratulations to my fellow recipients this year, my friends Mayor Sharpe James and Leon J. Suprenant. I would like to also congratulate the Luso-Americano for its 75 years of service to the Portuguese American community.
One of the reasons that I am still in Washington this evening is because the Senate is working on many urgent issues, reflective of the numerous challenges facing our nation today. With a war in Iraq, a struggling economy, and great fear among Americans about domestic security, our country is in a different state than it was when I left the Senate in 2000. Tonight, I salute the young men and women of our Armed Forces, from New Jersey and elsewhere, and wish them a safe and speedy return.
The United States’ relations with its traditional allies and friends throughout the world have grown increasingly complex. In the Middle East, we face a region undergoing transition, with strong mixed feelings about America. In Europe, we also find polite disagreements about the dimensions of international threats. It is during such a complicated time of changing international order that the legacy of Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes is so important. As a Portuguese diplomat in Bordeaux from 1938-1940, Dr. de Sousa Mendes defied his own government’s orders and issued visas to European refugees fleeing the invading Nazi armies. Many of these visas –at least 10,000 out of the 30,000 –saved Jews from almost certain death.
It is also important to remember that Dr. de Sousa Mendes was punished for his acts of courage -dismissed from diplomatic service, unable to practice law- he died in poverty. In today’s complex world, when it can be difficult sometimes to distinguish what the right course of action is, we look to the example of people like Dr. de Sousa Mendes as a beacon of what is true and best in humanity.
The spirit of coexistence and peace that he displayed provides a useful example for today. In 1988, when I introduced a resolution in the Senate honoring the memory of Dr. de Sousa Mendes, I hoped that my fellow Senators and the American people would pay tribute to his memory in a time of peace. Today, when our nation is engaged in military confrontation abroad, it is even more important to remember Dr. de Sousa’s courage and his belief in the uniqueness of every human life.
Thank you again for this tremendous honor.