WASHINGTON (Sep. 1)
Seventy members of Congress have sent a letter to President Mario Soares of Portugal asking his government to posthumously honor a Portuguese diplomat who saved some 30.000 Jews and others during World War II. The bipartisan letter was initiated by Reps. Henry Waxman and Tony Coelho, (both D. Cal.). Coelho is the only Portuguese-American member of Congress.
The diplomat was Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amoral e Abranches, who headed the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux in the south of France in 1940 where Jews and others had fled in the wake of the Nazi invasion of France.
As the Germans approached the city, thousands lined up in front of the Portuguese Consulate seeking Portuguese visas for the only open escape route, over the Pyrenees into Spain and into neutral Portugal. Working around the clock for three days, de Sousa Mendes gave visas to Jews and others fleeing Nazism despite orders from the military government of Antonio de Olivera Salazar not to do so.
When Lisbon learned what de Sousa Mendes was doing, he was recalled and ousted from the diplomatic corps. He was forbidden to practice his profession of law or hold any other job and died in 1954. Most of his 14 children had to leave Portugal.
‘ONE OF THE GREATEST HUMANITARIANS’
Calling de Sousa Mendes “one of the greatest humanitarians of the World War II era,” Waxman said that Holocaust scholars have compared him to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved 100.000 Jews in 1944. The only country to honor de Sousa Mendes is Israel, where he was awarded posthumously in 1967 the Yad Vashem gold medal for those who helped save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.
Waxman said the Congressional action was sparked by the one of the late diplomat’s sons, John Abranches, who lives in the town of Dublin, east of San Francisco, and has begun a petition drive to get the Portuguese government to recognize his father’s heroism. Another son is making a similar effort in Portugal.
“De Sousa Mendes’ actions place him on a plateau shared with very few others,” Waxman said. “He risked his life to save thousands of complete strangers. It is time he be recognized.”
The letter from the Congressmen noted that even though the Salazar dictatorship was overthrown in 1974, “the heroism of Dr. de Sousa Mendes and the injustice subsequently done to him have never been publicly acknowledged.” Waxman said Soares has a strong record of support for human rights and was a leading opponent of the Salazar regime.