Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Quote of the day: Antes com Deus contra os homens do que com os homens contra Deus. –Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Aristides de Sousa Mendes
Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches died 50 years ago in April, but commemorative services are being held on or around the 17th of June at synagogues and churches around the world. Those of my readers who are not Portuguese are probably asking themselves one of two questions: Who was he? or, if you happen to know who he was, then Why June 17th instead of April 3rd?

The long answer is here, but the short answer to the first question is that de Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux in 1940, and probably the single individual who saved the most Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Although the Salazar government had forbidden granting visas to Jews (explicitly) and displaced persons (in general), thousands of refugees beseiged the consulate begging for help as France was falling to the Nazi onslaught.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes decided to help them. Beginning on June 17th, 1940, he issued at least 30,000 hand-written visas allowing refugees - among them the Habsburgs - to cross the Pyrennees into neutral (or non-belligerent) Spain. A third of the visas went to Jewish families (not necessarily to individuals), and Mendes also issued passports and helped people across the border, so the actual number of people he saved is unknown but much larger than 30,000. He was recalled to Portugal a week later as the Wehrmacht were occupying Bordeaux, but he did not obey orders for two more weeks.

After his return to Lisbon, Salazar took credit for de Sousa Mendes’ humanitarian efforts, yet stripped him of his honors, barred him from his profession, and refused him his pension. He and his large family became as refugees in their own land. He died unnoted, in poverty, in 1954. Though he was posthumously recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile (ironically so - he was proud of his Jewish ancestry), and even partly rehabilitated recently by the state, his story remains a uniquely Portuguese tragedy. Que a sua alma descanse em paz.

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