Portugal Lauds WWII Consul Who Saved Thousands
Updated: Nov 18
Aristides de Sousa Mendes and a telegram from dictator Salazar (Courtesy of Sousa Mendes Foundation)
Portugal honored Aristides de Sousa Mendes with a place in the National Pantheon in Lisbon along with the tombs of other major historic figures. The diplomat issued thousands of visas to Jews and other World War II refugees without authorization from the dictator Salazar, who severely punished him.
President Marcel Rebelo do Sousa, Prime Minister Antonio Costa and Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, president of the National Assembly, attended the ceremony on October 19, according to SIC Noticias (October 19).
In the central nave of the Pantheon, a plaque now commemorates the former consul in Bordeaux. However, the remains of the hero will stay in the family tomb in Cabana de Viriato, Carregal do Sal, as stipulated in Sousa Mendes’ will.
Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues evoked “the illustrious Portuguese,” whose “enormous courage” led to actions “touched by grandeur”:
“Everyone will agree that the example of generosity and courage of Aristides de Sousa Mendes exalts Portugal and gives prestige to the Portuguese people. I am sure most people would like to think that, if they were faced with an equivalent dilemma, they would choose not to look to the side and (they would) make the ethical decision, facing the consequences. Fortunately, few of us are faced, in real life, with such a dilemma.
“Eight decades later, it is startling that, throughout Europe and around the world, it appears that the historical record of what happened may not have been sufficiently rooted in the collective memory of the democracies that have since emerged.”
Ferro Rodrigues recalled “the evident increase in the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, racial hatred, homophobia, rejection of the other for being foreign or different as well as the resurgence of Holocaust denial discourses."
“Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a major figure in 20th century Portugal. May the example of his conduct, to which we pay tribute here today, serve as a beacon in times of new difficulties and challenges for the collective memory, demonstrating the value of resistance to the unjust and inhumane. May his entry into the National Pantheon contribute to perpetuating his memory.”
The tribute took place 67 years after the hero died in penury in a Lisbon hospital at age 68.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches was born on July 19, 1885, in Cabanas de Viriato, a village 35 kilometers south of Viseu. He had a twin brother, Cesar. There was one other younger brother who pursued a naval career. His family was an aristocratic and Catholic one of the Beira Alta. His father ended his legal career as a judge on the Coimbra Court of Appeals. His mother, also of the region, was a maternal illegitimate granddaughter of the 2nd Viscount of Midoes, a lower rural aristocracy title.
Sousa Mendes and his brother, Cesar, studied law at the University of Coimbra. Sousa Mendes was one of the best students. Antonio do Oliveira Salazar, who was from Vimieiro, Santo Comba Dao, also studied law there at the same time.
In 1910, still during the monarchy which ended that year on October 5, Sousa Mendes and Cesar began their diplomatic careers. Before his post at Bordeaux, France, Sousa Mendes had served in British Guiana, Zanzibar, Curitaba and Porto Alegre in Brazil, San Francisco and Boston in the United States, Vigo in Spain, Luxembourg and Belgium.
Sousa Mendes, a convivial personality, made friends at his posts around the world, among them the scientist, Alfred Einstein, and King Leopold of Belgium, according to Rui Afonso in Um Homen Bom (1995). A sultan of Zanzibar was the godfather of one of his children.
Before Bordeaux, Sousa Mendes already had taken actions without obtaining authorization from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1916, he temporarily abandoned his post in Zanzibar to take one of his children, who was gravely ill, to Durban, South Africa. The incident caused him a reprimand. Then, in 1935, he returned, suddenly and without permission, to Portugal to help with preparations for his father-in-law’s funeral. The second incident led to the opening of a disciplinary process.
Germany implemented the persecution of Jews in stages. After Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933, the regime built a network of concentration camps in Germany for political opponents and those deemed “undesirable”, starting with Dachau. After the passage of the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler plenary, or absolute, powers, the government began isolating Jews from society. This included boycotting Jewish businesses.
In 1939, the Nazis had invaded Poland, which had the world’s largest Jewish population. England and France, allies of Poland, had declared war. Sousa Mendes was the general consul of Portugal, a neutral country, in Bordeaux. He drove his wife and 10 of his 15 children to a train in Spain heading for the safety of Portugal, wrote Rui Afonso. Two of his children stayed with him and helped him at the consulate.
In the spring of 1940, Hitler’s forces invaded Denmark and Norway. The invasion began with the hum of fighter planes and the rumble of aerial weapons in the skies of the Netherlands in the early morning of May 10, 1940. In Luxembourg, occupied by German commandos almost without a shot fired, the grand duke, his family and the principal members of the government fled immediately to France. Nearly 70,000 Luxembourgers followed their example.
By June 1940, Bordeaux had become a city of fear amidst chaos and confusion. With the constant arrival of new refugees, the population of the city had grown from 300,000 to 700,000, wrote Rui Afonso. According to some, the population seemed even greater.
Sousa Mendes allowed 30 refugees to live at the consulate, while thousands outside its doors clamored for visas.
Portugal, officially neutral and under the dictatorial rule of Salazar, had issued a 1939 directive –“Circular 14” – to all its diplomats. The dispatch allowed consuls to continue granting Portuguese transit visas but established that in the case of “foreigners of indefinite or contested nationality, the Stateless, Russian Citizens, Holders of a Nansen (stateless) passport, or Jews expelled from all countries and those alleging to embark from a Portuguese port without a consular visa for their country of destination, or air or sea tickets, or an Embarkation Guarantee from the respective companies, the consuls needed to ask permission in advance of the Foreign Ministry head office in Lisbon,” according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs exhibit, Spared Lives: The Actions of Three Portuguese Diplomats in World War II (September 2000).
What should he do?
The dilemma tortured Sousa Mendes. There was no time to lose. Following the rules would mean death to refugees. Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed 6 million Jews, about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.
For three days in mid-June 1940, Sousa Mendes suffered a physical and nervous collapse, which surprised no one, wrote Rui Afonso. For weeks, he had days full of an immense volume of work and nights full of anguish and insomnia. He locked himself away.
Finally, on June 17, he opened the door of his office and said:
“As I informed everyone, my government has flatly refused all those requests to grant visas to any and all refugees. Everything is now in my hands, to save the many thousands of people who came from all over Europe in hopes of finding refuge in Portugal. They are all human beings, and their status in life, religion or color is totally irrelevant to me.
“I would rather stand with God against Man than with Man against God.”
At dawn the next day, June 18, Sousa Mendes got to work with the help of a friend, Rabbi Chaim Kruger of Belgium, two of his sons and consul personnel. They streamlined the visa process by signing their initials and allowing the visa to cover families rather than individuals, wrote Rui Afonso. According to Rabbi Kruger, Sousa Mendes did not stop to eat or drink. He stayed seated at his desk in his office, one of the two rooms with a veranda on the street. The secretary consul worked in the other room. The process continued until 10 at night.
On June 19 and 20, the work progressed, beginning at dawn and continuing until 2 or 3 in the morning.
During these three days, they issued thousands of visas.
On June 20, Sousa Mendes went to Bayonne, France, where the Portuguese consul was not issuing visas. Sousa Mendes continued his work. Some said that he signed visas in his car, in the street and in his hotel room.
Salazar ordered Sousa Mendes back to Portugal. The diplomat disobeyed him. The Portuguese government notified the Spanish authorities that Sousa Mendes visas were not valid. At a crossing post on the Spanish border where the Portuguese official made a call to the Spanish consul, Sousa Mendes sent refugees to another post where there was no phone, wrote Rui Afonso. He took refugees into Spain, driving them in his car with diplomatic plates which shielded them from questions or searches. In one case, he lifted the barrier.
On his return to Bordeaux, he kept on signing visas, but in his apartment.
Three weeks after he began issuing visas, he returned to Portugal, signing visas even as he traveled back home.
From November 1939 to July 1940, Sousa Mendes signed 30,000 visas, 10,000 of them for Jews, according to Rui Afonso in Um Homen Bom.
Sousa Mendes had believed that Salazar would forgive him. He was wrong.
First, the Portuguese dictator removed him from his position. He forbade the diplomat from practicing law or working at all, wrote Rui Afonso. Sousa Mendes was not allowed a pension. He became poor. The bank repossessed the family home.
His children were prohibited from advancing their education or acquiring promotions. For a while, one of his daughters supported the family with office work. He and his family became social pariahs as people were forbidden from speaking to them on the street.
In 1945, five years after returning to Portugal, Sousa Mendes had a stroke, and his right side was paralyzed, wrote Rui Afonso. In 1948, his wife died. The following year, he married the mother of his 15th child.
He died on April 3, 1954, in poverty and disgrace at the Franciscan Hospital for the Poor in Lisbon. He was buried in a Franciscan tunic for lack of appropriate clothes of his own, according to the family’s Sousa Mendes Foundation.
His attempts at defending himself were unsuccessful. Soon, his children immigrated to California, the Congo, Angola and Mozambique. He asked them to fight for his honor and clear the family name. They took up the cause.
In 1966, Israel was the first to recognize his work, declaring Sousa Mendes to be “Righteous Among Nations”. Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer characterized his act as “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
In 1986, the United States Congress issued a proclamation honoring his heroic act.
Finally, in the late 1980s, Portugal recognized him when President Mario Soares apologized to the family and parliament promoted him to the rank of Ambassador.
Even after the biter consequences of his actions, Sousa Mendes knew that he acted humanely on behalf of thousands of innocent people and stood by his decision to save their lives, according to the Sousa Mendes Foundation:
“I could have acted otherwise and I, therefore, accept all that has befallen me with love.”