Cesar Mendes’ Eye-Witness Account of Visit to Uncle, Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes

In the year of 1939 I was living with my father in Warsaw, Poland. My father was then on an assignment as ambassador of Portugal. However, to keep on with my plans that of continuing my musical studies with Jacques Thibaud, I would have to leave Warsaw and go to Paris, where I spent just a few months because the professor went to San Juan de Luz for the summer and I followed him there at his own request.

In 1940 the German invasion was under way in France. After Paris had been taken I was pleasantly surprised by my uncle’s visit. My uncle was then consul general for Portugal in Bordeaux, France.

With the progressive German invasion all products became rationed and so the gasoline was entirely taken for the German cars. My uncle needed gasoline and a car besides and since I lived in a place still not occupied by the Germans at that time it was easy to fined what he wished. My uncle was on his way to Bayonne about thirty miles from San Juan de Luz, to settle matters about the refugees with the consul there. Some days after that the situation got worse in San Juan de Luz, terror and panic being felt. The people abandoned their belongings to escape the Nazi terrorism. The parks and highways were jammed with abandoned cars, because, here, too, no gasoline was available.

Everywhere there was desolation. Under these circumstances I interrupted my studies. Jacques Thibaud was very unhappy because his sons had been mobilized and I decided to join my uncle. Later on when I arrived in Bordeaux and approached the Consulate of Portugal I noticed immediately that a large crowd of refugees was heading that way and that the Consulate of Portugal was their aim.

The closer I got to the consulate the larger the crowd. They wanted desperately to get visas to go to Portugal.

Since May 10, 1940, until the occupation of the city, the dining room, the drawing room and the consul’s offices were at the disposal of the refugees, dozens of them of both sexes, all ages, and mainly old and sick people. They were coming and going, there were pregnant women who did not feel well, there were people who had seen, powerless to defend themselves, their relatives die on the highways killed by the machine guns firing from planes. They slept on chairs, on the floor, on the rugs, there could never be any control again. Even the consul’s offices were crowded with dozens of refugees who were exhausted, dead tired because they had waited for days and nights on the street, on the stairways and finally in the offices.

They could not satisfy their needs, they did not eat nor drink for fear of losing their places in the lines, what happened nevertheless and caused some disturbances. Consequently the refugees looked bad, they did not wash themselves, they did not comb their hair, they did not change their clothes and they did not shave. Most of them had nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

The incidents took such proportions that it was imperative to ask the army to preserve the order.

In each room and in each office there was a soldier. These soldiers were under the orders of a sargeant. At that time the chancellery was located on the first floor of a building in the Quai Louis XVIII. It is still located there today. The sidewalks, the front door, the large stairways that led to the chancellery were crowded with hundreds of refugees who remained there night and day

waiting for their turn. The discipline was enforced by soldiers. In the chancellery they work all day long and part of the night. My uncle got ill, exhausted, and he had to lie down. He considered the pros and cons and decided to give all facilities without distinction of nationalities,races or religion and bear all the consequences. He gets up impelled by a ”divine power” (these were his own words) and gives orders to grant free visas to everybody.

As in Bayonne his orders were not obeyed by the consul, he decided to go there himself. The refugees there received him with great joy and renew their hopes to be saved. The Consulate of Bayonne was under the jurisdiction of the consulate of Bordeaux. My uncle then drives to the frontier to help meet the ambassador of Portugal to Madrid who insulted him, but my uncle does not give up and continues his humanitarian action saving refugees until the end when his is called to Lisbon.

Before May 10, 1940, the Portuguese Government granted visas or refused them but this was slow and after that when the refugees kept coming there was no use writing anymore and it became necessary to wire, but the Government stopped answering and consequently the work in the chancellery concerning passports and visas froze. This way the number of the refugees increased frightingly leading the situation to a dramatic climax. This is when my uncle made up his mind to help all the refugees.

I recall some events about prominent refugees: Charles Oulmont, a writer and a teacher at the Sorbonne moved into my uncle’s house, ate with us in the kitchen and slept in one of the bedrooms. This gentleman never removed his pajams since the night he first came in, the same night that Bordeaux was bombed and 500 people were killed. He lived scared to death of being taken by the Nazis, but his fear was justified because he had written against the Hilter regime.

His fortune was quite large and consisted of pure gold in four potatoes sacks. To convince my uncle to grant him visas he promised half of his fortune. My uncle rejected the promise but granted him the visas.

One day a French ambassador fell on his knees and begged my uncle to grant him visas for himself and his family reminding him that he had daughters he wanted to save. It was noon and my uncle, my aunt and I were having lunch in the kitchen when the ambassador arrived for his appointment which my uncle had arranged previously. My uncle, always considerate towards everybody, interrupted his meal, the only time he could count on to be alone with his family. I mentioned the kitchen because the dining room and the drawing room did not serve us because they had been given to the refugees.

(Signed) Cesar Mendes