In every period of history, there have been unsung heroes whose bravery goes unnoticed for decades. We remember those who fought on the battlefield, but those who acted courageously off the battlefield must never be forgotten either. Aristides de Sousa Mendes was one of these individuals — he saved thousands of lives only to be dishonored and punished by his government.
It was 1940 and World War II raged in Europe. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, 55, was a Portuguese diplomat; he was stationed in Bordeaux, France, as consul general.
On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands. In response to the impending flux of refugees into Portugal, the Portuguese government (neutral, but unofficially pro-Hitler) reinforced Circular 14. That document, issued in 1939, forbade Portuguese consuls from handing out visas to refugees, especially Jews. This was devastating news for Jews desperate to escape the fate of Hitler’s clasp. Jews sought visas in the hopes of crossing from France to Spain, into Portugal and on to any final destination that would accept them including the United States, England, Cuba and Brazil.
Witnessing the terror that these people faced, Sousa Mendes defied his government’s orders and followed his conscience. “I would rather stand with God against Man than with Man against God,” he said, according to the Sousa Mendes Foundation.
In 1940, between June 11 and June 23, he worked night and day to distribute an estimated 30,000 visas, about 10,000 for Jews, according to the foundation. Sousa Mendes signed every visa he gave out and even escorted some people to the Spanish border, ensuring their safe entry into the country. In addition, Sousa Mendes issued visas free of charge to those who could not afford them. However, there is a piece missing to this puzzle. Researchers are hunting for his visa recipients; only about 3,000 of the Mendes-signed visas have been found.
Sousa Mendes was completely blacklisted as a result of his defiance; he lost his diplomatic position, his money and his reputation. With few opportunities left in their own country, Sousa Mendes’ 15 children fled Portugal to other countries across the globe. At 68 and living in poverty, Sousa Mendes died in Portugal in 1954.
“I could not have acted otherwise and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love,” he once said.
It was not until recently that more people began to recognize Sousa Mendes as a true hero. In 1966, Yad Vashem in Israel recognized Sousa Mendes as Righteous Among the Nations. In 1987, the Portuguese Republic posthumously granted him an Order of Liberty medal, one of the nation’s greatest honors. The following year, the Portuguese parliament dismissed the charges of disobeying his government and promoted Sousa Mendes to the rank of ambassador. In 2004, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Angelo Roncalli Committee organized religious, cultural and educational activities in 30 countries to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sousa Mendes’ death.
Unfortunately, Sousa Mendes is not a household name — not the way German industrialist Oskar Schindler is —and in fact, many people are unaware that their ancestors were visa recipients. The Aristides de Sousa Mendes Foundation, established in 2010, works to preserve and share his brave story worldwide. The foundation is raising money to convert Casa do Passal, Sousa Mendes’ home in Portugal, into a museum of tolerance and to uncover all the unidentified visa recipients. (Photo: The dilapidated home in Portugal of Sousa Mendes, where survivors and their descendants gathered for a tribute ceremony in June 2013.)
In the past few years my family discovered our connection with Sousa Mendes, who we think gave visas to at least 50 of my relatives. Not all of them ended up using the Mendes visas, as some made the last boat out of France headed for England and America.
“Over 10 years of mapping out my family tree, I had never made the connection between Sousa Mendes and my family history,” said my father, Paul Freudman, a Sousa Mendes Foundation researcher. “After becoming a researcher for the foundation, thanks to my genealogical work, I have discovered that many of my Belgian relatives were most probably Sousa Mendes visa recipients.”
If you don’t know your family history, there’s no better time than right now to take out dusty documents and passports and interview your relatives. Understanding where you come from is one of the most important steps in understanding where you’re headed. Check the full list of known visa recipients at sousamendesfoundation.org. Who knows? Maybe your ancestors were Sousa Mendes’ visa recipients; maybe you owe this unsung hero your life.
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It is our job as a rising generation, whether we are Jewish or not, to spread this story. Sousa Mendes’ sacrifice should not be forgotten. Moreover, it is the sentiment and message behind his actions that we should all remember. People justified their negligence during World War II with the excuse that one person alone cannot make a significant difference. But Sousa Mendes would disagree. His story is one that we can all carry with us as a reminder, as an inspiration that when something disturbs our conscience, we should stand up and defend what we believe is right, despite the odds against us.
As Sousa Mendes himself said: “If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian [Hitler], surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews.”