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The Memory of Aristides de Sousa Mendes
by Alexandra Pereira
2008-07-21 09:30:51
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Aristides de Sousa Mendes (1885-1954) was a Portuguese diplomat who issued more than 30.000 Portuguese visas – some of them to individuals, some others to families or groups of people – free of charge to refugees escaping from the Nazi troops, 12.000 of whom were publicly Jews. Visas were issued to many other people with very different religions and occupations, including political dissidents, army officers from occupied countries, writers and musicians, entire families, university professors, humble people, priests and nuns and even… the heir of the Austrian-Hungarian Emperor, Otto von Habsburg, condemned to death by Hitler. Aristides did this in a conscious and responsible disobedience act, ignoring the orders coming from his own government.

Sousa Mendes was a diplomat in Zanzibar, Brazil, Kenya and the USA before he arrived to Antwerp, Belgium, in 1931. In Belgium, he met the Nobel Prize winners Maurice Maeterlinck (Literature) and Albert Einstein (Physics). After almost 10 years in Antwerp, he was assigned to the consulate of Bordeaux, France, where Rabbi Chaim Kruger, of Antwerp, would develop a deep friendship relation with Sousa Mendes.

«I will not condone murder, therefore I disobey and continue to disobey Salazar.»

Portugal's dictator Salazar maintained the Portuguese neutrality during the war, but ordered in 1939 that Portuguese consuls should not issue visas “to foreigners of indefinite or contested nationality; the stateless; or Jews expelled from their countries of origin”, as Salazar felt, of course, some sympathy for the Nazi fight against the Communists and was very cowardly afraid of Franco as well.

Six months later another order stated that "under no circumstances" were visas to be issued without prior case-by-case approval from Lisbon. Similar policies against Jewish immigration had been adopted much earlier by the United States and the United Kingdom. When, just a few days after these orders arrived to the consulates, Sousa Mendes was asked to justify why he had issued a visa to Professor Arnold Wizrntzer, a Viennese refugee, he answered simply:

“He informed me that, were he unable to leave France that very day, he would be interned in a concentration camp, leaving his wife and minor son stranded. I considered it a duty of elementary humanity to prevent such an extremity."

«If thousands of Jews can suffer because of one Catholic [Hitler], then surely it is permitted for one Catholic to suffer for so many Jews.»

Since 1939 Sousa Mendes had been sending very frequent telegrams to Lisbon with coded messages for approval of the visas, but a great number of them were issued in mid-June 1940. Sousa Mendes ignored the orders coming from Lisbon and begun to issue visas to everybody. At the front door and steps of the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux, thousands of refugees gathered during June 1940. As the Germans got closer and communications failed, Mendes decided to form an assembly line – together with his wife, two of his sons who had remained in France, Rabbi Kruger and some refugees – to issue the visas on every sheet of paper available, and ordered the consulates of Toulouse and Bayonne, under his command, to do exactly the same.

«I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love.»

From Bordeaux, Mendes went personally to the consulate of Bayonne, near the Spanish border, where he took charge to set up a second assembly line, in order to issue some thousands of visas more. On the 23rd of June, already after a couple of telegrams more from Salazar ordering him to stop, he personally raised the gate to allow passages to occur in the French-Spanish border of Hendaye/Irun and opened way for the refugees with the official black limousine and its diplomatic license tags. Just during a couple of months of that 1940 summer, PIDE [the political police of the Portuguese regime] estimated that 40.000 European refugees had crossed the Spanish border to Portugal.

As the Ambassador in Madrid arrived at Irun to cancel further visas and Mendes got a telegram from Salazar demanding his immediate return to Portugal when he went back to Bordeaux on the 26th of June, Sousa Mendes would take almost two weeks to arrive to Lisbon. He was still issuing Portuguese passports on his way back, to refugees who were trapped in France, trying to prevent their deportation to concentration camps. From Portugal, many refugees helped by Mendes would get a ship to the United States, Brazil or the Caribbean after staying in the country for some months, while other families remained in Portugal. Mendes hosted large dozens of them in his Passal villa, including several ministers of the Belgian government with their respective families.

In spite of knowing that he was a father of 14, Salazar expelled Sousa Mendes from the diplomatic career in 1941, and ordered that no one in Portugal would practice charity towards him, that his driver license should be cancelled, as well as his right to register and work as a lawyer, that he was. Sousa Mendes was forced to sell his villa, all his lands and possessions, including clothes, and his family survived (ate and had a place to live in) with the help of a local Jewish agency, until his children all begun to move to other countries, except for one.

Sousa Mendes was also stripped of his pension and had a stroke in 1945 which left him partially paralysed. His wife Angelina, who had been his youth sweetheart, would die in 1948. At least two of his children managed to study in the US with the help of the Jewish families they had saved, and two of his oldest sons joined the US army in 1943 to take part in the Invasion of Normandy already in 1944. Mendes died very poor in the Franciscan Hospital of Lisbon, in 1954. Having no clothes of his own, he was buried in a Franciscan tunic.

This was, at the time, the payment to a man who actually helped to save more lives than Oskar Schindler.

After members of Mendes family living in the US made an effort and pressure to recover his memory, the Portuguese institutions begun to slowly “remember”. The Passal villa was bought but still waits to be rebuilt. A Sousa Mendes Foundation was created, which has no funds to operate with. As there are no funds available to rebuild the villa either, a “virtual museum” was launched early this year, associated with a great marketing campaign by the Portuguese government – surprise of surprises: in spite of the high number of people who worked in its technical team (including translators, filmmakers, architects, researchers and designers playing narrators) and the proud display of films borrowed by the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, the website doesn’t even have an English version and no videos available have subtitles, independently of the fact that testimonies were done in English, French and Portuguese by different people. More: the website doesn’t even have its own .com domain, and was hosted in “sapo” server instead!


* * * * * * *

Aristides de Sousa Mendes Foundation:

Oral testimonies (from the “virtual museum”):

Rabbi Jacob Kruger, son of Rabbi Chaim Kruger:

“Virtual Museum” (for those who know or like to decipher Portuguese):

Testimony by Henri Zvi Deutsch:

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Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 11:56:38
«If thousands of Jews can suffer because of one Catholic [Hitler], then surely it is permitted for one Catholic to suffer for so many Jews.»

In reality there were thousands of Catholics, not excluding the then Pope Pius XII, who were permitted to suffer with (the meaning of com-passion)for Jews and helped in providing asylum to several thousand Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Moreover, to call Hitler a Catholic is like calling the devil an ex archangel. Two prominent Catholics who jump to mind are Archbishops Roncalli and Rotta, both Vatican diplomats and Ambassadors to Turkey and Bulgaria who provided thousands of visas and false baptisimal certificates to allow persecuted Jews to flee.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 11:57:55
Here are the details on the activities of the two above mentioned Catholic Church diplomats on behalf of Jews.

Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (who later became Pope John XXIII)

Papal Nuncio (Ambassador) in Istanbul, Turkey, 1943-45 Archbishop Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, interceded with King Boris of Bulgaria on behalf of the Bulgarian Jews, and with the Turkish government on behalf of the Jews who fled to Turkey. He also did his utmost to prevent the deportation of Greek Jews. Roncalli provided reports to the Vatican about the annihilation of millions of Jews in Poland and Eastern Europe.
Monsignor Angelo Rotta
Italy, Papal Nuncio (Ambassador) in Budapest, 1944-45 As a member of the Vatican Diplomatic Corps in Sofia Bulgaria, Rotta saved Bulgarian Jews by issuing false baptismal certificates and visas for Palestine. In Budapest, he actively protested the deportation and, murder of Hungarian Jews. He issued more than 15,000 safe conduct certificates and issued hundreds of baptism certificates to Jews in labor camps, at deportation and on the death marches.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 12:39:10
As Tony Judt never tires of reminding us, it is fine but not enough to erect monuments and memorials and museums to those heroes who put compassion ahead of political expediency (he calls that phenomenon "misremembering'), we must also ponder and vigorously discuss the lessons that can be learned by the enormity and the dishumanization represented by the Holocaust. Without that reflection and debate, the memorials become a mockery of sort by which to feel good about ourselves and then move on without changing much of anything.

AP2008-07-21 15:49:18
In the case of Sousa Mendes, to suffer had not only the meaning of compassion (is that suffering?) but the meaning of being accused with 14 different charges, being ostracized and bankrupt, having his career destroyed, his dreams and friendships and independence and work relations destroyed, his health (and the one of the love of his life) totally destroyed and his family persecuted (his children could not find a job nor go to the university in Portugal).

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 16:54:58
The root meaning of compassion is the Latin cum-passio which literally means to suffer with. Surely all those who put their life and career at risk (and there are hundreds of examples, which is not to diminish Sousa's heroism) to help those who lost everything understood the disastrous enormity of what was going on in the Europe of the time and that their own redemptive suffering even if it paled in comparison to the suffering of those they were trying to help, was a sign of empathy and commiseration. Hitler's montruous behavior on the other showed precious little of what it means to be Christian. The other point made is Tony Judt's: it is fine to build memorials and memorialize but by itself that is the equivalent of "misremembering." We honor the memory of those who suffered with by delving in the root causes of of an Holocaust so that it may never happen again. What happened in Bosnia, Europe only 10 years ago hardly points to the fact that the lessons have been learned.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 17:05:00
One more follow-up if I may. St Francis of Assisi gave up every worldly possession and creaturely comforts to live with the poor and dispossessed and suffer with them. As a Catholic that Sousa Mendez was as he declared himself when he referred to Hitler misguided Catholicism..., to be buried in the tunic of St. Francis and be compared to such a spiritual luminary in his material poverty but spiritual opulence, ought not be considered a shameful event but an honor and a privilege.

AP2008-07-21 17:09:49
It's Mendes, not Mendez (portuguese last name, not spanish). thank you for your other comments.

AP2008-07-21 17:16:38
For further knowledge of his actions, please have a look at the video testimonies.

ps2008-07-21 17:24:34
I guess what Mendes meant while referring to Hitler was this: there are no Jews nor Catholics, just humane or disumane people. He also referred to Salazar. Who's unable to understand this?

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 17:26:51
Thank you for the correction on the name's spelling, Ms. AP.

For the record, it bears pointing out that Aristide de Sousa Mendes and his identical twin, Cesar, were raised with strong values centered on the family's ancestral traditions and profound Catholicism. Aristide de Sousa Mendes was in fact a devout Catholic all his life. Perhaps you'd agree that such a fact is quite relevant in the context of his statement on Hitler?

AP2008-07-21 17:39:38
More relevant for his actions, I truly believe, were not only pagan values of dignity and courage that he must have received from his family, but above all the fact that he was a very cultured man, and as such he was quite aware of the fact that many portuguese had jewish ancestors - including himself, which is well expressed in his own name. Moreover, he was a travelled man who used to share thoughts with Maeterlinck, for example. It's obvious he had nothing to do with the government in his own country anymore - and nothing to do with his twin brother anymore either -, he became inflated with humane values during his travels, and he was a global citizen above all. Salazar, by the way, was raised with profound Catholic values and was a devoted Catholic too, and was born in the same district as Mendes, and studied and taught at the same university. They went in completely opposite directions. That's why I believe he's sentence was more ironic than anything else, and referred to Salazar as well, as the dictator didn't do any sacrifice, but instead received money for each Jew crossing the border to Portugal.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 18:08:34
I suppose we have a different interpretation or definition of what it means to be "a devout Catholic." I for one do not think that either Salazar or Franco were such. On the other hand if one's aim is to bash the Catholic Church than Salazar's and Franco's Catholicism will be emphasized and de Sousa Mendes will be simply not mentioned in his biography.

AP2008-07-21 18:17:48
Also because of being a very cultured and lucid man, Mendes was quite aware, for example, of the fact that Portugal had been developing very intense and close commercial relations with the Flanders since the 13th century (a group of flemish actually helped the first portuguese king to conquer Lisbon in 1147 and his daughter married the count of Flanders). Since then, thousands of portuguese established themselves in Bruges and thousands of flemish went to live in Portugal, and specially in the portuguese islands. Since the 15th century with the discoveries, the portuguese business man had an infinity of products to exchange in the Flanders. The presence of that community became so strong that in the beginning of the 15th century the portuguese founded a trading post in Bruges, and another portuguese princess married another count of the Flanders, taking with her 2000 more portuguese who would develop a great activity in commercial trade, finances and the arts. In 1499 the portuguese colony left Bruges and trasferred itself to Antwerp, where in 1511 they become a nation with special priviledges. The golden era of Antwerp was just starting. Damião de Góis, for example, was one of the important members of the portuguese Trading House of Antwerp, which negotiated the products coming from the Orient.

AP2008-07-21 18:36:05
During the whole 16th century, thousands of portuguese moved to Antwerp, many of them being "new-christians" (Jews) fleeing from the persecutions in Portugal, namely by the Inquisition. After the spanish arrived there in 1576-86 and eventually controlled the region in the 17th century to introduce religious intolerance again, many hundreds of portuguese jewish families fled from Antwerp to Holland and Germany. The prestige of these portuguese families of Antwerp was such that Thomas Morus chose as the main character of his work Utopia an old and wise portuguese sailor from Antwerp: Rafael Hitlodeu. The intense commercial and cultural trade was extremely significant both to Portugal and the Flanders until the end of the 17th century. This means a part of the Jewish community of Antwerp had portuguese ascendants. Mendes was obviously well aware of all this. During the WWI many portuguese lost their lives in the Flanders and the cemiteries of Antwerp, Ninove and Tournai are filled with their graves. Above all, Mendes was very, very lucid historically and in humane terms.

AP2008-07-21 18:50:24
No one is trying to bash the Catholic church, and the Jewish families that Mendes saved are the first to proudly declare that he was a Catholic. No one is trying to praise it either, if you expected that. The important thing here is the man and his actions.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 19:40:42
The man and his actions exist within an historical context and the whole context needs to be narrated, not merely what suits one's ideological or intellectual idols and assumptions; indeed, nobody expects more than that!

AP2008-07-21 19:47:15
To describe that context, that's precisely what I tried to do. Thank you. :)

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 20:51:02
We agree: to describe the context fully and honestly and objectively is indeed all that is expected of us Ms. AP, although Plato would caution us that if we remain in a cave all that we will be able to describe are our shadows projected on the wall by the fire behind us...For more than a year now I have attempted to elaborate on that simple proposition.

For example, in this very magazine there have been various attempts by an "enlightened" rationalist proud of his scientific rationalism devoid of any humanism to portray the whole medieval period and even the Renaissance (more than one thousand years of European history)as somewhow obscurantist, gothic, dark, simply because of an obvious bias to portray the Church, which played a crucial role and that history and without which European history is incomprehensible, as the primary cause of those negative characteristic. All this abysmally ignoring the destructive role of the barbarians and the varied positive contribution of the same Church. When this bias and bashing is pointed out with facts and scholarly interpretations and essays the reaction becomes boorish and one is met by argumenti ad hominem and assorted contrived accusations bordering on the slanderous and revealing the mind-set of the intellectual bully who disrespects anyone and any opinion which diverges from his own. I have been trying to suggest that indeed, the Enlightenment has one more step to take: to enlighten itself. That proposal should be at least be given the benefit of a hearing since many men concerned about the trajectory of Western Civilization have also proposed it.

AP2008-07-21 21:00:32
Well, but those discussions of yours with Sand have absolutely nothing to do with these article. Those are your shadows showing up.

ap2008-07-21 21:02:39

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-21 22:49:37
Am I mistaken in detecting an implication: that you yourself and Mr. Sand are somehow outside the cave in the light of the sun? Should that be the case, it should at the very least give you some pause. Even Plato was not that sure.

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