June 18, 2004

International acknowledgment of Sousa Mendes on the 50th anniversary of his death

The world paid homage to Diplomat rescuers of the Holocaust

In the year of the 50th anniversary of Aristides de Sousa Mendes’ death (1885-1954), the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Angelo Roncalli Committee organized more than 80 commemorations around the world. Dozens of religious, cultural and educational activities took place in 30 countries in the five continents. Among the many countries that joined in the acknowledgement were France, the United States, the Vatican, China and Israel.

June 17 marks the day in which the Portuguese diplomat, disobeying orders from his government, started to issue visas to rescue about 30,000 people persecuted by the Nazis, which occupied France in 1940. His courage and determination had an extraordinary impact during the next five years of the Second World War: he inspired many other diplomats and encouraged similar rescues until the end of the war.

In New York a mass dedicated to Sousa Mendes was celebrated in the church of Our Lady of Fatima, in Yonkers officiated by Monsignor Celestino Migliore, Apostolic Nuncio of the Vatican to the UN.

”This act is the proof that in life there are more important things than life itself”, pointed out Baruj Tenembaum, founder of the Wallenberg Foundation. ”We, as Jews, must keep the balance between the complaints for the suffering and the total acknowledgement of the people who helped us”, said Tenembaum.

Among the audience present, that filled the temple, it is worth mentioning the presence of Gonçalo de Santa Clara Gomes, Ambassador of Portugal to the UN; Alexandre Manuel Galvão Mexia de Almeida Fernandes, General Consul of Portugal to New York; Sheila Abranches and Aristides Mendes, Sousa Mendes’ relatives and the colorful presence of dozens of representatives of the Portuguese community in New York wearing traditional costumes. Once the service was over, a reception took place in which Ms. Abigail Tenembaum, vice-president of the Wallenberg Foundation, presented the Sousa Mendes Medal and invited Mr. Baruch Tenembaum to award John Crisostomo, distinguished Portuguese activist dedicated to promote the life and deeds of the Portuguese savior.

Crisostomo presented the projection of the documentary film ”Diplomats for the damned”, which shows the rescue actions carried out by diplomats during the Holocaust. Mr. Crisostomo read the names of prominent Diplomat Rescuers and the twenty two countries from which they came.

”History seems to compensate tyrants and criminals, because they are the heroes and protagonists in people’s minds, especially among the youngest. This situation must be counteracted with the promotion of positive examples ”, Crisostomo said. ”We must acknowledge and honor those people who dedicated their lives for the well being of others, especially those people who saved lives. Today is a good moment to start”.

The homages for the person who declared that ”he would rather be with God against men than with men against God”, remind us of how the act of only one person changed history and influenced in the conducts of many people who dared imitate him. That is why June 17 can be considered as the ”Day of Thanks and Acknowledgments” to all the diplomatic saviors of the Second World War.

In Rome, a mass was celebrated in the Basilica Saint Mary in Travestere, officiated by Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Peace and Justice Commission of the Vatican.

In the course of the prayers, Cardinal Martino included an invocation for the peaceful coexistence of people and communities of different beliefs, races, religions as well as a declaration against anti-Semitism and racial discrimination.

Before the end of the ceremony, the special representative of the IRWF sent to Italy, Rabbi Mario Ablin, was invited by the High Vatican Prelate to address the audience. In the course of his message, Ablin announced the decision of granting the Sousa Mendes award to Cardinal Martino who showed his satisfaction by standing up due to people’s applauses.

”It is our duty to remember all Christians who, encouraged by their faith, reacted bravely offering their help to the persecuted Jews, sometimes under the risk of losing their own lives. Their blessed memory must be kept alive”, pointed out Pope John Paul II.

In Bordeaux, the city in which Sousa Mendes undertook his rescue action, the ”50 anniversary Sousa Mendes Medal” was presented to Father Bernard Jacques Riviere, due to his long and successful dedication to promote the deeds of the former Portuguese Consul.

The Wallenberg Foundation received hundreds of adhesions to the unprecedented initiative, including by the Prime Minister of Portugal, H.E. Jose Manuel Durao Barroso; US Congressman, Tom Lantos; Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Elie Wiesel; the Mayor of Yonkers, Phil Amicone and Raoul Wallenberg’s niece, Louise Von Dardel.