December 6, 2004

Speech of Fabio Koifman

Your Excellency Ambassador Julio Cesar Gomes dos Santos, Brazilian Consul General in New York, Mr Baruj Tenembaum, Founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation; Mr João Crisóstomo, Vice President of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and Coordinator of the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas and of Aristides de Souza Mendes; Ambassadors and other distinguished guests; Ladies and Gentlemen:

Ambassador Souza Danta’s performance as to the humanitarian help he gave to those who were persecuted by the Nazis, was the topic of my History Master Dissertation which was published in 2002.

In 1997 I had the first information about this unknown Brazilian diplomat and the role he played during World War II, through the testimony of Mr. Raphael Zimetbaum, one of those who had a diplomatic visa given by Souza Dantas.

Holocaust testimonies had been collected by the ”Shoah Foundation” an entity created by the American motion picture producer Steven Spielberg. By the end of the nineties he had collected testimonies of thousands of Jewish survivors from the Holocaust in several different countries.

As one of the recipients of visas obtained through the Ambassador SD, Mr. Zimetbaum was very surprised by the fact that there were no remembrances or records related to his humanitarian deeds, he who had been the direct responsible for the rescue of some of his relatives during the war.

This was the starting point of a long and careful research that lasted for three years, followed by another nine months which took me to write the text.

This I wrote in about five hundred pages to sum up all I could find during all this time, either researching in the public archives or listening to oral testimonies concerning Souza Dantas and his performance during World War II. I will try to summarize my work in the next few minutes.

Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1876 (eighteen seventy-six). His grandfather was one of the most outstanding senators of the nineteenth century in Brazil.

He graduated in Law school at the age of 21 and entered the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Office.

Souza Dantas managed to reach all diplomatic career positions. He served in several different capital cities, all over the world.

In 1916, during the first World War, he was designated temporary Brazilian Affairs Minister.

He reached the position of ambassador in 1919 (nineteen – nineteen) when he was called to lead the Brazilian representation in Rome.

By the end of 1922 (nineteen twenty-two) Souza Dantas was appointed Brazilian Ambassador to France, a position he would keep until 1944 (nineteen forty-four). He was at the time the dean of the Brazilian Diplomatic Office in Paris. Between 1924 and 1926, Souza Dantas represented his country several times in the League of Nations.

A bachelor, Souza Dantas was a habitual customer of the ”Comedie Française” theatre . It is said that he had romantic relationships with some of the actresses. At the age of fifty seven he married an American widow, a bit older than him, Elise Meyer Stern. In the same year one of Elise brothers, Eugene Meyer, bought a bankrupted newspaper, ”The Washington Post”. The well known publisher Katharine Graham who directed the newspaper for many years was Elise Souza Danta’s niece.

Before the invasion of France by the German Army, Elise left France and came to USA. She would only meet Souza Dantas again in the middle of 1944.

In June, 10th 1940 the French government left Paris. And so did some foreign ambassadors. Four days later the German troops captured the city. After some short periods in the cities of Tours and Bordeaux the French government moved its base to Vichy. In June 22nd 1940 the French surrendered and the Armistice was concluded four days later.

In July 10th a new government began, led by Marshal Petain.

According to the Armistice the French territory was divided into two parts: Paris and all the north part of the country occupied by Germany was administrated by the German military ; the south part of the country was considered a Free Zone, administrated by a collaborationist French government but without the ostensive Nazi troops presence.

To the refugees an exit visa from Europe represented a matter of life or death, for, most of the countries had been practicing a diplomacy of severe restrictions to new entries for a long time. The diplomatic offices still open had very long lines at their doors. So, it was extremely difficult to obtain a visa.

In 1937 (nineteen thirty-seven) the ”New State Dictatorship” was established in Brazil. President Vargas closed the Congress and ruled by means of law-by-decree, an authoritarian regime.

Brazil was one of the few countries in the world that was still interested in attracting new immigrants despite the war. But for the Varga’s government this did not mean a policy of equal opportunity, as rules were introduced in order that only those considered right people were allowed entry.

Brazilian consuls were directed not to give visas to most of the refugees. The exceptions were well defined.

There are indications that Souza Dantas had already intervened in favor of refugees from Nazism before he had left Paris in June 1940 (nineteen forty). However I only was able to prove the Ambassador’s humanitarian help from that period onwards. And his help was not limited to Jews, but was given also to other groups that were being persecuted by the Nazis.

On these days the Consulate was in charge of emitting visas. An Ambassador would only concede personally a visa under exceptional circumstances.

In 1938 (nineteen thirty-eight) the Brazilian government, through a law-by-decree, established precise rules and a number of special criteria to concede visas to foreign people. The consulate authority that emitted the visa had to abide by extensive bureaucracy, such as declarations and all kind of documents, demands that were almost impossible for the refugees to fulfill.

Thousands of people were displaced persons: Some were ”Nansen” passports holders; others had no documents to travel at all, specially the ones coming from the countries then already occupied.

The first records of irregular diplomatic visas issued by the ambassador I could spot, started to appear after the time Souza Dantas left Paris.

The visas were issued in his own handwriting and thus constitut an evident material of Souza Dantas´ humanitarian efforts.

On his way from Paris to Vichy, Souza Dantas passed by Perpignan and Bordeaux. There he started signing foreign passports to many, with no considerations of origin, social and economic conditions or ethnicity, without following the severe Brazilian bureaucratic rules and restrictions.

The majority of the about five hundred diplomatic visas that I found, were given to common people. They are dated from June 1940 to 12th December 1940, the date when S.D. was officially forbidden to issue any kind of visas. However, according to some testimonies, many refugees came to the ambassador in the first months of 1941 and received their visas from him. Those visas were stamped with dates previous to December 12th 1940.

From August 1940 on, when the refugees started arriving in Brazil with visas given by S D, a large number of complaints and protests from the Maritime Police and from the immigration and Justice Cabinet arrived to the Foreign Affairs Office. They denounced the massive issue of irregular diplomatic visas given by SD.

During the year of 1941 the arriving refugees were an important preoccupation for the Brazilian Government due to political disputes in the high levels of the government. From April 1941 onwards, The Justice Cabinet took control of visa permits to foreigners.

After a number of incidents that had restrained the refugees from disembarking in the Brazilian harbors – lots of them carrying visas given by SD – the Ambassador was perceived as recalcitrant. Dictator Vargas became profoundly irritated not only because of the international pressure concerning the ships full of refugees that were being refused in Brazil, but specially because of the visas to foreigners given by SD that had already been unauthorized by Vargas himself.

It became a personal matter to Vargas.

On October11th 1941 Vargas ordered an administrative process against the ambassador and started arrangements for his replacement. War-related problems prevented Vargas to find a quick solution.

As SD learnt that he was to be prosecuted because he had issued irregular visas, he sent the following telegram to Rio de Janeiro:

”I remind you that, due to the fact that there was no Consulate here, I was forced to take over the consulate functions because of the greatest catastrophe mankind has suffered up to our days, in order to save human lives. I did what had to be done, with the nobility of the Brazilian soul, moved by the most elementary Christian feelings. Almost all the visas were given only to facilitate the exit from France of those unhappy people wanting to commit suicide and a few others that were given only to get to Brazil, not having caused any inconvenience to the country, as I was informed by this Office”

The process started. However it was weakened due to the rupture between Brazil and Germany. Brazil declared war on Germany and soon after that, in August 1942, Vargas gave order to file the lawsuit.

From August of 1942 on, while waiting for his substitute, SD kept sending information about the refugees situation in France. The following telegram is very explicit:

” The Gestapo has been performing a true enslaving and extermination of Jews. Their families are literally split up, the husbands, with their heads shaved, are taken to work in Silesia. The wives are sent to concentration camps in Poland. All of them are being sent to unknown locations and probably they will never meet each other again. Their children, even the youngest ones are violently pulled out of their mothers and confined to special asylums where they die.”

A few days later he would complete his report:

” The foreign Jews, specially the ones from countries under Nazi occupation, who are in the non-occupied France, are being delivered to the Germans. Many are sent, closed inside wagons shut with lead, more adequate to the transportation of animals. Men and women take different ways. All of them are kept apart from their children who are left in distress. Many of these people commit suicide and numerous painful scenes are taking place when their families are destroyed. (.) This government, alleges that these are German demands, and they are concerned with the French Jewish people. They want to prevent them from being expelled too, so they do what they are asked to do by the Germans. (And SD continues:.) ” These are acts that violate traditional rights of protection and the most elementary principle of humanity, dishonoring France.”

As it is easily understood, by these telegrams of August 1942, SD is in fact informing that the Holocaust is already well under way.

In November 1942 Germany invaded the ”Free Zone”, until then under the French collaborationist government of Vichy, thus occupying all French territory. On the following day the Brazilian Embassy was invaded by a group of Nazi officials. SD interposed himself in front of the German soldiers shouting and protesting. The Nazi soldiers threatened him with their guns but eventually everybody calmed down thanks to the counselor Trajano Medeiros who spoke fluent German.

SD and his subordinates ended by being arrested and were deported in January 1943 to Bad Godesberg in Germany. They remained confined in a hotel until the end of March of 1944.The diplomats would only arrive in Brazil in May of 1944.

The Brazilian newspapers treated SD as an hero due to the fact that Brazilian soldiers were fighting in the war, the news about SD resistance in the embassu in Vichy and the long time he remained detained.

Brazil was still under Vargas’ dictatorship and the transformation of the prosecuted diplomat into a hero did not please the dictator at all. Soon the news about paying homage to him disappeared from the media. During the time Vargas ruled, SD was kept out of any limelight.

In October 29 1945 Vargas was thrown out of office and the Ambassador good standing reemerged, thanks to the political influence of his former colleague-diplomats.

He was already retired when he was invited by the Foreign Affairs Minister to head the Brazilian delegation in the first part of the United Nations General Assembly in London, between January 10 and February 14, 1946.

There he was called the ”Dean of the World Diplomatic Corps”. On January 14 SD was the second speaker to address the General Assembly, right after James Francis Byrnes, the American Secretary of State.

Between 1951 to his death in 1954, Vargas was President of Brazil again, as a result of free elections this time.

SD lived his last years in Paris and died in April 1954, just a few days after the Portuguese Savior Aristides de Sousa Mendes.

A series of political events, specially those related to so called Vargas heirs, were determinant to cause the silence around SD ´s name after his death: any reference to SD was always avoided by those who looked after the memory and legacy of President Vargas.

SD never had any children, and after his death there was no voice left to remember his name.

After almost fifty years of oblivion, I see with joy, emotion and satisfaction a homage like this taking place. I see with joy the name of SD as a reference to exemplary humanitarian behavior. It is fitting that his name be associated with great humanitarians such as Raoul Wallenberg and Aristides de Sousa Mendes – the pioneer of the Holocaust Rescue Operation whose 50th(fiftieth) anniversary of his death we also commemorate this year.

I have no doubts that this would be his greatest wish and the best homage that someone could pay to him.

Thank you very much.