April 8, 2005

Homage to Sousa Mendes and Souza Dantas

Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese diplomat who saved the lives of about 30,000 Jews and others during the Nazi Holocaust, and Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas, the Brazilian diplomat who issued hundreds of visas in France while risking his own career, were honored at the Museum of the Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust at a reception organized by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF), the Consulate General of Portugal in New York and the Consulate General of Brazil in New York.

Against the written orders of the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who said ”No Visas for Jews”, Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued visas ”around the clock” to as many refugees as he could, without regard to nationality or religion. This act of moral courage resulted in Sousa Mendes’ dismissal by the Salazar government and in the impoverishment of his large family.

Moved by what he later called ”a Christian feeling of mercy”, Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas granted diplomatic visas for hundreds of Jews and other persecuted by the Nazi regime during WWII.

The reception marked the opening of the Museum’s exhibit of the registry book used by Sousa Mendes for the first two thousands visas issued on June 17, 1940, and of the pen used to enter those names. The names of both diplomats are recognized in the Rescuers Gallery of the Museum.

During the ceremony, Ambassador Felix Rohatyn who was able to escape from Nazi occupied Europe at the age of 13 with a Brazilian visa issued by Souza Dantas, honored the man who saved his life with a touching speech. H.E. Pedro Catarino, Portuguese Ambassador to the United States attended the reception appointed by the President of Portugal, Dr. Jorge Sampaio, to represent him in this event. Diplomats representing Portugal, Brazil, Germany, Rumania, Hungary, Switzerland, Japan, Chile, Turkey, Angola, and East Timor were among the guests who attended the event.

In a letter of endorsement, the President of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio, wrote: ”Defying orders from the Lisbon government, he jeopardized his career and his reputation by granting them visas out of occupied France, thus standing as an example of generous, bold, selfless action and of the primacy of ethical values for generations of all times.

It is with great pleasure that I associate myself to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation in this celebration, honouring the memory of Aristides Sousa Mendes.”

On the other hand, Mario Soares, former President of Portugal, expressed: ”I would like to stress the great merit and significance of this event, once the purpose is to pay homage to the courageous and heroic Portuguese and Brazilian diplomats, Aristides de Sousa Mendes and Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas, whose actions saved the lives of many refugees from the nazi persecution.”

The reception 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. The awards were handed by Sousa Mendes’ grandchildren: Sheila Abranches, and Gerard and Louis Phillipe Mendes who traveled especially from Canada for the occasion.

In early 1986, Jacobvitz and Treseder founded the International Committee for the Commemoration of Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Among their many achievements, they successfully campaigned internationally for Sousa Mendes’ ”rehabilitation” in Lisbon. In 1987, thirty three years after his death, Sousa Mendes was exonerated and honored by the Portuguese government, and his story is viewed as an example of moral courage by Portuguese school children and by their parents.

Rodrigues, a Portuguese-American activist, has worked both in the United States and in Portugal to honor Sousa Mendes’ life and memory, to restore the crumbling Sousa Mendes family home, and to establish it as a museum and conference center dedicated to the study of the humanitarian values that Sousa Mendes represented.

The Souza Dantas Award was bestowed to John Crisostomo, a volunteer at the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation who has dedicated much of his time to the memory of the Holocaust Heroes.

This event is the last in a series of year-long 50th Anniversary Commemorations, including worldwide Thanksgiving Masses marking the day Sousa Mendes started granting visas and the day of his passing; religious and civic ceremonies in Synagogues, Universities and other institutions; the presentation of the Aristides de Sousa Mendes Portrait to the Mission of Portugal to the United Nations; and a ceremony at the Consulate General of Brazil in New York City, wherein the Consulate’s Main Reception Room was named for Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas, and the diplomat was remembered by historian Fabio Koifman, author of ”Quixote nas Trevas,” about the life and courage of Souza Dantas.