Whilst the story of Oskar Schindler still dominates public discourse about rescuers during the Holocaust, Frederica Jordão shares the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes’s fight to bring Jewish refugees to Portugal.
Refugee Policy in Portugal
Just a few days before the Portuguese Government led by the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar saluted the victory of the Allies at the end of World War Two, they had decreed three days of national mourning for the death of Adolf Hitler.
On May 18th, in a speech to the National Assembly, the Head of State publicly took credit for Portugal’s support of refugees during the conflict by stating that
“any others in our situation would have welcomed refugees, saving and comforting [those] survivors of a shipwreck, helping to soften the misfortune of [those] prisoners, by mere duty of human solidarity […] too bad we could not do more”.
Oliveira Salazar, 1951, Discursos e notas políticas: 1943-1950, Coimbra Editora: p. 105.
The reality of Portugal’s foreign policy under the governance of Salazar, however, deeply contradicted these statements. The nation’s conservative policy towards refugees is particularly illustrated by the disciplinary procedures Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes faced for providing more than a thousand transit visas through Portugal.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes
Aristides de Sousa Mendes was the Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux when the Nazis arrived in France in May 1940. In the days of the invasion, the population of Bordeaux is reported to have increased from 300,000 inhabitants to more than 700,000 people. As deeply devout Catholics, Sousa Mendes and his wife welcomed the most needed among the thousands of refugees who lingered around the consulate and the official residency at Nr. 14 Quai Louis XVIII hoping for visas to Portugal, a neutral country in the world conflict which bore the only open harbours in Europe, from where it was safe to travel out of the continent.
Find out more: Sousa Mendes’s background
The capitulation of the Petain Government on 17th June 1940 coincided with Sousa Mendes suffering a nervous breakdown with the increased workload caused by growing number of refugees at the consulate without any answer from the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to their requests for visas.
The Government of Salazar had been trying to limit the entrance of so-called “undesirables” into Portugal since 1933. Circular 14, issued in November 11, 1939, by the MFA, in particular stated that Consuls should consult with the Ministry before issuing visas to:
- “foreigners of unknown, contested or disputed nationality”
- stateless persons
- holders of Nansen passports
- “those who present in their passports declaration or any sign that they cannot return freely to the country from which they come”
- “Jews expelled from the countries of their nationality or from those from which they originate”.
Sousa Mendes was sensitive to the exceptional conditions of the refugees demanding visas. Encouraged by his Catholic faith and guided by a humanist education, Sousa Mendes embraced the decision of granting visas to anyone who demanded the help of the Consulate: between June 14th and June 20th, 1288 transit visas through Portugal were issued, mostly to Jews, without any report to the MFA. As the city of Bordeaux was bombarded by the Luftwaffe, on June 17th, Sousa Mendes followed the flow of refugees into Bayonne, and there, again he granted visas to all refugees seeking the Portuguese Consulate and would continue to do so en route to Portugal as he was summoned to the MFA on charges of disobedience.
Aristides was immediately subjected to a disciplinary process at the MFA. On October 30th, he was sentenced to one year of inactivity and a 50% salary reduction to be followed by compulsory retirement. His appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court after the war, despite Salazar’s declaration about refugees, was dismissed as “irrelevant”.
The Legacy of Sousa Mendes
Sousa Mendes died in poverty in 1954 – a proscription hanging over his name, which affected the reputation of his twelve children, who were forced to look for jobs abroad. The name of Sousa Mendes was kept from history books and the media until the late 1990s, when a growing movement for the rehabilitation of his name, actions and legacy was started by family members and friends in the United States.
A catholic monarchist, conservative and traditionalist, Aristides de Sousa Mendes stood out from his peers for his true sense of duty towards the well-being and safety of all People, regardless of origin, religion or political view. This is his legacy for humanity.
Sousa Mendes was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1966. In 1987, the President of the Portuguese Republic posthumously granted Aristides with the Order of Liberty, and in 1989 the Portuguese National Assembly symbolically decided for his reintegration in the diplomatic corps.
In 2001, family members and friends in Portugal put up a foundation dedicated to the rehabilitation of his name and the building of a memorial museum at this family home, Casa do Passal, in Cabanas de Viriato. In 2010, in the United States, visa recipients and their descendants set up the Sousa Mendes Foundation to honour, and teach about Sousa Mendes’s legacy to the world. Many other homages followed, around the world.
To help World War Two refugees and their families reconstruct their escape routes from Europe and promote peace through shared heritage, I devised “Traveling Light”, a research project documenting the passage through Portugal of those war fugitives. It was presented in the USA at the Sousa Mendes Foundation Gala on October 29, 2017, and hopefully it will develop into a full education program about the Holocaust in 2018.
Learn more about Sousa Mendes in this virtual exhibition about his life and work created by DRCC, Portugal with the ARQSHOAH Virtual Archive, Brazil, National French Committee of Homage to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Sousa Mendes Foundation, USA and ViVer, Germany.
The digital exhibition Spared Lives from the Portuguese Government also teaches about the humanism of Sousa Mendes’s actions.
You can also watch Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides online – a dramatic oratorio in twenty tableaux, which offers a way to think about how music and performance can help us to remember Sousa Mendes.
We have also been given permission to share Priscilla Fontoura’s short documentary film I am Alive thanks to Aristides de Sousa Mendes:
- Looking at the Righteous Among Nations catalogue database, are there any local rescuers from your region, whose narrative you could incorporate into your teaching?
- Are there individuals in your region, who have not been, but deserve to be more widely commemorated, how could this be done?
- Reflecting on Sousa Mendes’s actions, in what ways do you believe individuals can personally help refugees? What challenges might people face in doing so, and how can these be overcome (if at all)?
Further Reading Suggestions
José Ruy, 2015, Aristides de Sousa Mendes: Hero of the Holocaust (Comics)
José-Alain Fralón, (2001), A Good Man in Evil Times: The Story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes – The Man Who Saved the Lives of Countless Refugees in World War II (translated by Peter Graham)
Joan Arnay Halperin, 2017, My Sister’s Eyes: A Chronicle of Rescue and Loss During WWII
Rescuers during the Holocaust
Martin Gilbert, 2003, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust
David Crowe, 2004, Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List
Kati Marton, 2011, Wallenberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Who Saved the Jews of Budapest
Eric Silver, 1992, The Book of the Just: The Silent Heroes Who Saved Jews from Hitler
Frederica Jordão has a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, a MA in Museology, and works as a heritage specialist. In November 2016, she became a member of the General Council of the Portuguese Fundação Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
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