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Portugal Awards One of Its Highest Honors to Aristides De Sousa Mendes

Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese consul general who disobeyed his country by issuing thousands of visas to Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied France, was posthumously awarded one of Portugal’s highest honors here Tuesday. The award caps a longtime effort by de Sousa Mendes’ family and U.S. Congressmen to pay tribute to the man who died penniless after his efforts cost him his career.

“There’s an old saying and tradition in Portugal that Portugal awards the best of its sons very poorly,” said President Mario Soares as he bestowed the Order of Freedom upon de Sousa Mendes’ family at the Portuguese Embassy. “We have here a tribute to a man who honored his country then and honors us now.”

De Sousa Mendes held the post of Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux in 1940 when thousand of refugees were trying to flee France. He was instructed by his government, ruled by the dictator Antonio Salazar, a friend of Hitler, not to issue visas. He disobeyed the instructions and issued some 30,000 visas with about a third going to Jews, before being stripped of his power and sent back to Lisbon. He was ousted from the diplomatic corps and not allowed to practice his profession of law.

De Sousa Mendes’ daughter, Joana, accepted the award by quoting her father: “The praise is due to the country and its population, whose altruistic and humanitarian feelings found their full expression and universal impact precisely due to the disobedience of the claimant.”

Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosenne, who attended the ceremony in place of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, said the award comes at a time when “there is a tendency to distort the history of World War II, when there are some who claim the Holocaust never existed. Steven Carol, a professor of history and international relations at Adelphi University in Long Island, N.Y., said he knew his parents had escaped from France via Portugal during World War II. But it was not until he read an article about de Sousa Mendes in The New York Times two years ago that he looked at his parent’s visa papers and discovered de Sousa Mendes’ signature. “This is history and my family history coming together,” said Carol.

Sylvain Bromberger, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was 15 when he and his parents were awarded visas to go to Potugal, made the connection with de Sousa Mendes by seeing the same newspaper article. “We never set eyes on him (de Sousa Mendes) or set foot in the Embassy. It’s weird knowing you owe your life to someone,” said Bromberger.

The first recognition of de Sousa Mendes came in 1967 when Yad Vashem awarded a commemorative medal. A tree was also planted in the Garden of the Righteous on the grounds of the Yad Vashem Museum. In 1986 Rep. Tony Coelho (D. Ca.), the only member of Congress from a Portuguese background, drafted a resolution to honor de Sousa Mendes. A letter to Soares which culminated in the bestowing of the award was written by Rep. Henry Waxman (D. Ca.) and was signed by 70 members.

But de Sousa Mendes’ supporters, who have organized an international committee, believe even more recognition is due. They are urging that a street be named for de Sousa Mendes in Jerusalem. Waxman has written to Soares suggesting that de Sousa Mendes be restored to his rank in the diplomatic corps and that a stamp be issued or statue created for him in Portugal.

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