Portuguese Diplomat Honored by Bay Area Organization
(This article below was printed in The Portuguese Tribune, San Jose, CA – March 15, 1998. “Portuguese Diplomat Honored by Bay Area Organization”, by Catherine Gong.)
In the Summer of 1940, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was strolling down the street in Bordeaux, France. Nothing would have prepared him for the chance meeting he was going to have that would change his life and the lives of thousands forever. As de Sousa Mendes turns the corner, a desperate man approached him. The man was Rabbi Chaim Kruger. He told de Sousa Mendes that his wife and five children were seeking refuge in Southern France from the Nazis, who were now in control of Northern France. Immediately recognizing de Sousa Mendes as the Portuguese consul, Kruger pleaded for entry visas into neutral Portugal. Rabbi Kruger then told de Sousa Mendes that it was not only his family’s fate that was threatened, but the lives of all Jews. When Kruger told him about the mobile shooting squads and death camps, de Sousa Mendes was appalled. Knowing full well that his government was fearful of Hitler’s possible invasion of neutral Portugal, de Sousa Mendes knew of his country’s appeasement policies with Germany. One of those policies strictly forbade any Portuguese consulate to issue entry visas to refugees – especially Jewish refugees.
Torn between obeying his government and his conscience, de Sousa Mendes was faced with the decision of enormous consequences. To issue entry visas to Kruger’s family was against government policy, but possible; but if he issued entry visas to the thousands of Jewish refugees, he would jeopardize Portugal’s neutrality. Despite the consequences, de Sousa Mendes came to a decision, “I cannot allow these people to die.” “Many are Jews, and our constitution says that the religion, or politics of a foreigner shall not be used to deny him refuge in Portugal.”
From June 16-18 de Sousa Mendes, along with two family members and Rabbi Kruger, hand wrote and stamped more than thirty thousand visas. News of these “backdoor” visas spread, and the Portuguese foreign minister sent two emissaries to officially remove de Sousa Mendes from his post. While de Sousa Mendes was being forcibly driven back to Portugal by emissaries, they passed through Bayone and Hendaye. They saw thousands more pleading for help at the Portuguese consulates, and de Sousa Mendes ordered the driver to stop. Despite staunch resistance from the Portuguese emissaries and the two other consulates, he said “I have not yet been removed from my position. I am still your superior.” With that said, de Sousa Mendes assembled all the necessary papers, stamps, and seals and continued to save more lives. Even when he was forcibly taken from the consulates’ desks and to the Portuguese border, he guided Jewish refugees across the border to make sure that the guards would not turn them away.
Upon his return to the foreign ministry’s headquarters in Lisbon, de Sousa Mendes was immediately dismissed. Stripped of his diplomatic status, prohibited from practicing law, and shunned from society, de Sousa Mendes and his family of fourteen were penniless and forced to eat in soup kitchens. In 1954, he died unrecognized and in abject poverty. However, according to one report, to his dying day, he was convinced that the sacrifice he had made was insignificant in comparison to the rescue of those in distress.
Since his death, de Sousa Mendes has been recognized in a traveling photo exhibit, “Visas for Life”, honoring diplomats who risked everything to save Jews and other refugees from Hitler’s death camps. This exhibit will be shown at the United States Capitol in Washington D.C., and at Yad Vashem in Israel. It has been shown at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, and in the district office of Congressman Tom Lantos. Moreover, de Sousa Mendes’ children have been dedicated to memorializing their father’s memory, and established the International Committee to Commemorate Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
For more information about this organization, which is located in the Bay Area, please write to:
International Committee to Commemorate
Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes
c/o John Paul Abranches
3263 Vineyard Ave. #47
Pleasanton, CA 94566, USA
tel: (925) 461-4930
fax: (925) 484-9216