Eighty years ago, a middle-aged, mid-ranking diplomat sank into deep depression and watched his hair turn grey in days, as he saw the streets of Bordeaux filling with Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.
As Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes faced a moral dilemma. Should he obey government orders or listen to his own conscience and supply Jews with the visas that would allow them to escape from advancing German forces?
Sousa Mendes’ remarkable response means he is remembered as a hero by survivors and descendants of the thousands he helped to flee.
But his initiative also spelt the end of a diplomatic career under Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, and the rest of his life was spent in penury.
Portugal finally granted official recognition to its disobedient diplomat on 9 June 2020, and parliament decided a monument in the National Pantheon should bear his name.
It was mid-June 1940 and Hitler’s forces were days from completing victory over France. Paris fell on 14 June and an armistice was signed just over a week later.
Portugal’s diplomatic corps was under strict instruction from the right-wing Salazar dictatorship that visas should be issued to refugee Jews and stateless people only with express permission from Lisbon.
For those thronging Bordeaux’s streets hoping to cross into Spain and escape Nazi persecution there was no time to wait….
In a letter dated 13 June 1940 Sousa Mendes wrote: “Here the situation is horrible, and I am in bed because of a strong nervous breakdown.”
“No-one really knows what went through his mind in those two or three days,” says Dr Paldiel, who ran the Righteous Among the Nations department at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre for 25 years.
“Some say the duty of a diplomat is to obey orders from above, even if those instructions are not moral…
Whatever did go through the diplomat’s mind, Sousa Mendes emerged on Monday 17 June with a new determination.
According to his son, Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes, “he strode out of his bedroom, flung open the door to the chancellery, and announced in a loud voice: ‘From now on I’m giving everyone visas. There will be no more nationalities, races or religions’.”
No-one knows for sure how many transit visas were issued, allowing refugees to pass from France into Spain and travel onward to Portugal. But estimates range between 10,000 and 30,000, and most sought to cross the Atlantic to a variety of American destinations.
Salazar’s Portugal would later be praised for its role in allowing refugees to escape from Nazi occupation and repression, but Sousa Mendes was expelled from the diplomatic corps and left without a pension. This condemned him to live the rest of his life in the most absolute misery. Sousa Mendes survived thanks to a soup kitchen run by Lisbon’s Jewish community. In 1954 he died in obscurity, still disgraced in the eyes of Portugal’s government. His family home in Cabanas de Viriato fell into ruin, and remains so today.
“Sousa Mendes was mistreated by Salazar. He died in misery as a pauper, and his children emigrated to try to find a future somewhere else,” says Henri Dyner (one of the people saved by Sousa Mendes).
Henri’s family ended up in Brazil, before he moved to the US for professional reasons. But he remembers a man who had courage in his convictions.
“The way things are in the world today, we need more people prepared to stand up for what is right and take a stand.”
Let’s remember such heroes
and honour their compassion!
Over the years I collected a number of real stories of compassion from different time periods, cultures and geographic locations. Among them are:
- Franz Stigler
- A story of the German engineer who rescued the 2,000 or so allied prisoners from the Sebastiano Venier
- Other stories of Compassion during World War 2
- Heroism and Compassion: John Rabe
- We have to face the fact…
- Retired Japanese policeman Yukio Shige on mission to prevent suicides
- WoMEN for Women in Iraq
I’m always looking for more stories of compassion, so if you know any, please share them via a comment. Thanks so much.