Stories of Compassion: Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Aristides20I

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.

Honour

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.

Refugees

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:

I’m always looking for more stories of compassion, so if you know any, please share them via a comment. Thanks so much.

Compassion

Credits:

The power of storytelling in the world obsessed with data

“Stories tell us of what we already knew and forgot, and remind us of what we haven’t yet imagined.”

Anne Watson


Story
From Emotive Storytelling

For thousands years telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods. The rise of big data however shifted focus on metrics undercutting the power of storytelling and leaving off the agenda those things that can not be measured. Is storytelling a dying art form then?

To answer that question, lets have a deeper look at data-driven decision making. Decision making is lying across a broad spectrum. At one end of that spectrum are operational decisions, which are generally highly structured, routine, short-term oriented and increasingly embodied in sophisticated software applications. At the other end of the spectrum are strategic decisions. These are usually taken by high levels of management as they set the long-term directions and policies of a business, government or other organizations. They tend to be complex, and unstructured because of the uncertainty and risks that generally accompany longer term decisions. In between are many kinds of decisions, including non-routine ones in response to new or unforeseen circumstances beyond the scope of operational processes, and tactical decisions dealing with the necessary adjustments required to implement longer term strategies.

Given their structured nature, data analysis have long been applied to automate routine, day-to-day operational decisions, such as logistics and inventory management, personalized marketing offers and recommendations, and fraud detection in financial transactions. Beyond automated operational decisions, however, there are many situations where data alone might not be enough. As an example, strategic decisions aimed at shaping the future by setting the long term directions and policies of an organization, often cannot be ferreted out from the available data. In complex matters, what begins to matter more than mere data is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact. When dealing with complexity, “narrative imagining” or storytelling can become a powerful instrument of thought as well as a key communication tool.

As cognitive scientist Mark Turner points out, “most of our experiences, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories”. Narrative helps us make sense of a world that is rapidly changing as it can be focused on the next generation of change, not just an extrapolation of the present. Stories fuel innovation. They hold the power to transform listeners; to take listeners on a journey that changes how they think, feel or act. Stories can elicit emotional connections that make them a very powerful persuasion tool. Studies also show that we are wired to remember stories much more than mere data, facts, and figures. While mere numbers and graphs often kill a presentation’s soul turning into an insomnia relief for the listeners, stories have the power of transforming presented data into knowledge eagerly absorbed by the audience.

Not surprisingly,  legendary vizier‘s daughter Scheherazade has chosen the power of storytelling  in an effort to save the lives of thousands of women. After 1,001 nights, having been made a wiser and kinder man by Scheherazade and her 1,000 tales, the king not only spared her life, but made her his queen.

scheherazadeFrom Scheherazade 

THE END

The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second listening, the third memory, the fourth practice, the fifth teaching others.

Memory
From Memory Quote

“The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second listening, the third memory, the fourth practice, the fifth teaching others.”

Solomon Ibn Gabriol

* * *

The Giver
by Lois Lowry
(excerpt)
Giver

“Giver,” Jonas asked the next afternoon, “Do you ever think about release?”…

“I guess I do think about it occasionally,” The Giver said. “I think about my own release when I’m in an awful lot of pain. I wish I could put in a request for it, sometimes. But I’m not permitted to do that until the new Receiver is trained.”…

“Me,” Jonas said in a dejected voice. He was not looking forward to the end of the training, when he would become the new Receiver. It was clear to him what a terribly difficult and lonely life it was, despite the honor.

“I can’t request release either,” Jonas pointed out. “It was in my rules.”

The Giver laughed harshly. “I know that. They hammered out those rules after the failure ten years ago.”…

“Giver,” he said, “tell me what happened. Please.”…

The Giver looked sad, thinking about it. “She was a remarkable young woman. Very self-possessed and serene. Intelligent, eager to learn.”… I loved her…

“What happened to her?” Jonas asked.

“Her training began. She received well, as you do. She was so enthusiastic. So delighted to experience new things. I remember her laughter…”

The Giver closed his eyes. “It broke my heart, Jonas, to transfer pain to her. But it was my job. It was what I had to do, the way I’ve had to do it to you.”…

“Five weeks. That was all. I gave her happy memories: a ride on a merry-go-round; a kitten to play with; a picnic. Sometimes I chose one just because I knew it would make her laugh, and I so treasured the sound of that laughter in this room that had always been so silent.

“But she was like you, Jonas. She wanted to experience everything. She knew that it was her responsibility. And so she asked me for more difficult memories.”

Jonas held his breath for a moment. “You didn’t give her war, did you? Not after just five weeks?”

The Giver shook is head and sighed. “No. And I didn’t give her physical pain. But I gave her loneliness. And I gave her loss. I transferred a memory of a child taken from its parents. That was the first one. She appeared stunned at its end.”…

The Giver continued. “I backed off, gave her more little delights. But everything changed, once she knew about pain. I could see it in her eyes.”…

“She insisted that I continue, that I not spare her. She said it was her duty. And I knew, of course, that she was correct…

“I gave her anguish of many kinds. Poverty, and hunger, and terror….

“Finally one afternoon, we finished for the day. It had been a hard session. I tried to finish – as I do with you – by transferring something happy and cheerful. But the times of laughter were gone by then. She stood up very silently, frowning, as if she were making a decision. Then she came over to me and put her arms around me. She kissed my cheek…. She left here that day, left this room, and did not go back to her dwelling. I was notified by the Speaker that she had gone directly to the Chief Elder and asked to be released.”…

“When the Speaker notified me that Rosemary had applied for release, they turned on the tape to show me the process. There she was – my last glimpse of that beautiful child – waiting. They bought in the syringe and asked her to roll up her sleeve… And I listened as Rosemary told them that she would prefer to inject herself.

“Then she did so. I didn’t watch. I looked away.”…

Jonas stared at him. “Release is always like that? For people who break the rules three times? For the Old? Do they kill the Old, too?

“Yes, it’s true.”

“And what about Fiona? She loves the Old! She’s in training to care for them. Does she know yet? What will she do when she finds out? How will she feel?” Jonas brushed wetness from his face with the back of one hand.

“Fiona is already being trained in the fine art of release.” The Giver told him. “She’s very efficient at her work, your red-haired friend. Feelings are not part of the life she’s learned.”…

“Jonas,” The Giver said, after a moment, “it’s true that it has been this way for what seems forever. But the memories tell us that it has not always been. People felt things once…. We know that they once felt things like pride, and sorrow, and – “

“And love,” Jonas added, remembering the family scene that had so affected him. “And pain.” He thought again of the soldier.

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”…

The Giver shook his head. “Jonas,” he said, “the community has depended, all these generations, back and back and back, on a resident Receiver to hold their memories for them. I’ve turned over many of them to you in the past year…. If you get away, if you get beyond, if you get to Elsewhere, it will mean that the community has to bear the burden themselves, of the memories you had been holding for them.

“I think that they can, and that they will acquire some wisdom. But it will be desperately hard for them…. Remember how I helped you in the beginning, when the receiving of memories was new to you?”

Jonas nodded. “It was scary at first. And it hurt a lot.”

“You needed me then. And now they will…. My work will be finished… when I have helped the community to change and become whole… When my work here is finished, I want to be with my daughter.”

Jonas had been staring glumly at the floor. Now he looked up, startled. “I didn’t know you had a daughter, Giver!”…

Her name was Rosemary,” the Giver said.

Giver2

* * *

Let’s never forget the killed, neglected, hungrybullied and torturedhumiliated, abused. Let’s share their stories, let’s share the wisdom, let’s stop that pain…

tearsFrom Heart-Wrenching Sorrow

THE END