segunda-feira, abril 21, 2014

The forgotten Holocaust hero

There was a Portuguese diplomat called Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who during WW2 reportedly saved the lives of 30,000 people, including 10,000 Jews. Sadly, this act brought him exile and destitution.
Born in 1885 in Cabanas de Viriato, near Viseu, Aristides descended from a catholic aristocratic family. Following a diplomatic career after graduating in law from Coimbra University, he held consular positions worldwide, mixing with the best of society. He was made Consul in Bordeaux in 1938, moving there with his wife Angelina and their 14 children.
Aristides was sociable, attentive and family-orientated, insisting they all travelled together in a specially designed bus.

What did he do?

In the words of Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, he performed “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust”.
During WW2, Portugal was neutral but on November 11 1939, Prime Minister António Salazar ordered Portuguese consulates to “refuse visas to foreigners of undefined contested or disputed nationality, stateless persons and Jews expelled from the countries of their nationality or from which they came”. This confidential order, known as ‘Circular 14’, made it difficult for refugees to escape Europe through Portugal.
As Nazi troops advanced, refugees overran Bordeaux, many queuing outside the consulate for visas for passage through Spain and Portugal for travel to the USA. Aristides believed ‘Circular 14’ inhumane and racist and sent telegrams to Lisbon contesting the orders, but he was ignored.
He befriended refugee Rabbi Chaim Kruger and offered the family visas and refuge in his home realising that to help the ever-increasing number of desperate refugees he would have to disobey his government. Distressed, Aristides isolated himself for three days to make the decision that changed his life.
On June 17, 1940, Aristides told the Rabbi: “From now on I will give visas to everyone; there is no longer nationality, race or religion. I would rather stand with God against man than with man against God.”
For three days, Aristides worked endlessly issuing visas to everyone. Lisbon ordered him to stop but Aristides replied: “If there is to be disobedience, I prefer it to be to an order from man than to an order from God.”
Salazar demanded Aristides return to Lisbon but even then the Consul continued issuing visas along the way. At Hendaye, he found refugees being denied passage into Spain as word spread that his visas were invalid. Undeterred, Aristides led a procession of cars to another border where he convinced the guards to let everyone through.
Arriving in Portugal on July 8 1940 Aristides was stripped of his title and demoted. After 32 faithful years, he was banned from working and forced to ‘retire’. Colleagues, friends and local villagers shunned the family fearing repercussions from the authorities that decreed no charity be shown to the Sousa Mendes family. Unable to support themselves, the family ate in the Jewish community canteen and said “we too are refugees”.
Aristides fought continuously to clear his name, explaining to Salazar in 1945 that he could not go against the Portuguese constitution which forbade discrimination due to religion. He claimed to be unfairly punished whilst the government was being praised for helping refugees! His correspondence went unanswered and the family was destined to poverty and dishonour.
Ostracised in their beautiful mansion, Casa do Passal, Aristides’ children, unable to study or work in Portugal, eventually emigrated. When his wife died in 1948, Aristides married his French lover Andrée Cibial and they had one daughter. Living on soup they burnt the doors of the house for firewood.
Aristides died a pauper on April 3 1954 in the Franciscan Hospital in Lisbon. He was buried in a Franciscan habit as he did not even possess a suit. No-one from his family was present. His house was repossessed and abandoned.


Since his death, Aristides’ descendents have worked to keep his memory alive. In 1966 he was honoured at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as one of the “Righteous among the Nations” yet in Portugal this news was censored. There is a bust and plaque at his Bordeaux address and a promenade named after him in Vienna.
In 1986, his son João Abranches created the ‘International Committee to Commemorate Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes’ and in 1987 Aristides was granted the Order of Liberty Medal, one of Portugal’s highest honours.
In March 1988, 34 years after his death, Aristides was officially pardoned. All charges were dismissed and he was promoted to Ambassador.
In 1995 he was given the Military order of Christ and on the 50th anniversary of his death, he was honoured in more than 80 commemorations worldwide.

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