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Aristides de Sousa Mendes was taken from the Yad Vashem website


by Rhonda Spivak, Feb 1, 2022

A film about the courageous Portuguese diplomat , Aristides de Sousa Mendes, entitled "Disobedience; The Sousa Mendes Story" was shown virtually on zoom  by The Jewish Heritage Centre, which  partnered with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.

The film was about the heroism of  Aristidis de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul general stationed in the southern French city Bordeaux , who defied his government’s orders and issued nearly 30,000 Portuguese transit visas in the summer of 1940, about a third of which went to Jewish refugees desperate to escape Nazi-occupied France.  Sousa Mendes was severely punished by Portugal’s dictator Salazar, who sympathized with the Nazis, and stripped Sousa Mendes  of his diplomatic title and his ability to earn a living, leaving him unable to feed his large family.
As the film details, Sousa Mendes wrestled with  his conscience regarding whether or not to defy his government . Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, had issued wartime decree “Circular 14” which forbade the issuance of transit visas to Jews (wishing to escape capture by the advancing Germans), Russians and other stateless people.  Sousa Mendes realized he had the power to save thousands of desperate Jews, who had fled to Bordeaux from other regions captured by the Germans.
Sousa Mendes was influenced by Rabbi Chaim Kruger, one of those fleeing Jews, who  pleaded with him to issue to his brethren Portuguese transit visas. Kruger, a Polish Jew, refused to accept a visa from Sousa Mendes unless he issued visas for other helpless Jews. This was likely a turning point for Sousa Mendes who decided todefy his government’s orders and issue visas in contravention of “Circular 14.”  He had his son forge his signature so that he could issue even more transit visas to refugees. Those who could not afford to pay visa fees would receive the documents free of charge.
Once Jews received the transit visas , they would then be able  escape by crossing into Spain and proceeding to Lisbon, Portugal, where hopefully they could take boats to safe destinations.
It is worth noting that Sousa Mendes issued visas in the summer of 1940, long before he could have known what Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” would turn out to mean. What Sousa Mendes knew was that he was  saving people from persecution. ( Note that the Nazi occupation of France would mean the imposition of the Nuremberg laws in France.)
Portugal and Spain were technically neutral in the war, but in reality they were not so neutral. Unlike Sousa Mendes, most other  Spanish and Portuguese diplomats who exercised authority obeyed the calls of their governments, who sought to keep out what they considered to be undesirable refugees whose presence might jeopardize Portugal's  and Spain's standing with Nazi Germany.
According to the Washington Post, in a June 1940 letter to one of his brothers-in-law, written in the midst of the  the refuge crisis, the consul, who was a Catholic complained of “a strong nervous breakdown.” A few days later, however, he seems to have followed what he understood to be the dictates of his faith. “I would rather stand with God against man than with man against God,” Sousa Mendes said.
Sousa Mendes died in 1954 in abject poverty, refusing to take financial assistance from people whose lives he had saved by his actions .
In 1966, Yad Vashem recognized Sousa Mendes as Righteous Among the Nations.

Before his death in 1954, Sousa Mendes asked his children to clear his name and have the honor of the family restored. His sons and daughters, along with their children – now scattered all over the world – have fought for decades to have his deeds posthumously recognized. 

On July 19, 2021, the day of his 136th birthday, his bust was unveiled inside Portugal’s Parliament chamber and on October 2021, a ceremony honoring him took place at the National Pantheon, following a resolution approved by the Portuguese Parliament. De Sousa Mendes’ heroic efforts were thus finally recognized by his country and his honour officially restored. As well, the US Senate passed a resolution on March 3, 2021, honoring Aristides de Sousa Mendes. A public space in Paris, France, will be dedicated to him, in 2022, with a plaque on his honor.

Following the  film , there was a  Q & A led by Executive Director of the Jewish Heritage Centre Belle Jarniewski, with  The Ambassador of Portugal to Canada Joao da Camara  and Antonio Tavares, Consultant Diversity  Education and International Languages,Department of Education and Early Childhood Learning,Curriculum Development and Implementation Unit, MB Education and Training.Other sponsors of the program were the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, The Azrielli Foundation and the Portuguese Consul in Winnipeg.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.