Aristides de Sousa Mendes

5:20 AM Amer Bekic 0 Comments

Aristides de Sousa Mendes - The Portuguese diplomat who saved 30,000 people from the nazis during WWII.

It's a well known fact Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 jews from the nazi regime thanks to Steven Spielberg's movie "Schindler's List". But very few people are aware of the greatest act of rescue by an individual during the Second World War.

At the time of the German invasion of France, Aristides, a devout christian of aristocratic origins with 14 (!) children, was the Portuguese Consul to Bordeaux. The Nazi advance through the country had people on the run. Jews, spies, occupied government officials, all were trying to find a way out, and Portugal (an officially "neutral" country during WWII)  was considered by many as the last way out of Europe.

However, to appease the Third Reich, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the portuguese dictator at the time, issued "Circular 14", a document decreeing that no jews and other Europeans expelled from their countries would be issued visas. Aristides was torn as he viewed the order as going against the constitutional principles of his country.

But people still gathered outside the consulate in Bordeaux, desperate.

It was then Sousa Mendes met Rabbi Chaim Kruger, a Polish refugee who told the Portuguese diplomat he would not accept his own visa until all the other refugees waiting got theirs as well.

He took to his bed in a two-day crisis of conscience. After which he rose, his mind made up. The consulate staff  made a note of his statement: "I cannot allow all you people to die. Many of you are Jews, and our constitution clearly states that neither the religion nor the political beliefs of foreigners can be used as a pretext for refusing to allow them to stay in Portugal. I've decided to be faithful to that principle, but I shan't resign for all that. The only way I can respect my faith as a Christian is to act in accordance with the dictates of my conscience."

On June 16, 1940, assisted by his wife, children and Kruger, Sousa Mendes setup a round the clock visa issuing line which ended up creating 30,000 visas. 12,000 of those helped Jews escape from the Nazi's shadow. Salvador Dali, Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery and the entire Belgian cabinet (among 18,000 others)  also received visas.

After 2 days, Sousa Mendes continued his heroic work at the border towns of Bayonne and Hendaye.

He was then ordered back to Portugal on July 8, where Salazar, angry at his defiance, declared him mentally unfit. Sousa Mendes said "Even if I am dismissed, I can only act as a Christian as my conscience tells me".

He was stripped of his diplomatic status, his pension and his right to practise law, his original profession. No one, the state ordered, was to reach out to him or his family. He was declared "persona non grata" in his own country, leaving him and his family as domiciled exiles. He couldn't find a job and his family was shunned and condemned to poverty.

It got to the point where he was forced to use his house's doors as firewood to keep his family warm during the winter.

According to Hellen Kaufmann who runs the AJPN (L'association Anonymes, Justes et Persécutés durant la Période Nazie) - a charity that created a database of individuals who helped those persecuted by the nazis - "Sousa Mendes' actions were pivotal to the reconstruction of Europe after the war. It's not just the amount of people he saved but who many of them were. The governments of Belgium and Poland, the royal families of Luxembourg and Austria, along with political activists from throughout the continent. These were to be responsible for rebuilding the framework of Europe when hostilities ended."

Later in his life, Sousa Mendes said "I could not have acted otherwise and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love."

He died in 1954, in absolute poverty in a Franciscan monastery.

12 years later he was recognised by Israel’s Yad Vashem in 1966, “righteous among the nations”. In 1987 the Portuguese government restored his diplomatic status and dismissed all charges against him.

Many of the second generation jew survivors were not aware of the fact that their parents were able to leave Europe only due to visas that Sousa Mendes issued, or the personally devastating consequences of his heroic actions.