The Courage to Defy
Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Consul-General of Portugal in Bordeaux, France
Following the occupation of France in the summer of 1940, foreign consulates were faced with large numbers of Jews, desperately trying to obtain visas in order to leave Nazi dominated territories. Faced with the refugee crisis, Portugal restricted the entry of refugees, and when Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, prohibited further crossings by refugees, especially Jewish refugees. This meant that the last avenue of hope was now closed for thousands of refugees, including many Jews, who had fled southwards, hoping to leave France through Spain and Portugal. Many congregated at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux struggling to obtain the piece of paper that would extricate them from France.
Seeing the terrible plight of the refugees, Sousa Mendes decided to disobey his government’s explicit instruction. He received a delegation of refugees at the consulate, headed by Rabbi Haim Krieger, and promised transit visas to everyone in need. He even added that those who could not pay the visa fees would receive the documents free of charge. He then set up an improvised office in the consulate and, with the help of two of his sons and several Jews who were waiting nearby, began to issue entrance permits. Sousa Mendes toiled for three days and three nights, allowing himself not a moment’s rest and collapsing in exhaustion once the job was done. Between 15 and 22 June 1940 Sousa Mendes issued a total of 1,575 visas.
Rumors about Sousa Mendes’ actions reached Lisbon, which summarily ordered him to return to his homeland at once. Two men were sent to escort him back to Portugal. On the way, still in France, they passed the Portuguese consulate in Bayonne. Sousa Mendes saw a crowd of hundreds of people at the consulate’s doors. Although he had been recalled, Sousa Mendes entered the consulate and, ignoring the objections of the local consul, ordered the Consulate employees to issue visas to all applicants at once.
Back in Lisbon, Sousa Mendes was brought before a disciplinary panel and dismissed from his position in the Foreign Ministry. This left him destitute and unable to support his family of 13 children. Nevertheless, he told Rabbi Krieger, whom he had helped in Bordeaux:
"If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian [Hitler], surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews.”
Mendes died penniless in 1954. Only in 1988, thanks to external pressure and his children’s efforts, did his government grant him total exoneration.
From the testimony of Rabbi Haim Krieger, 1966:
We had escaped from Brussels to France together with thousands of our brethren who had been expelled from France and Belgium, that were already under the rule of the cursed Nazis. After many upheavals and troubles caused by Allied bombings, we reached Bordeaux. We found thousands more of our brethren in the streets, camping on the square next to the synagogue. In the evening a big car driven by a chauffeur arrived and stopped next to us. The diplomat stepped out and talked to me. He invited me to come with my wife and five children – the eldest was ten and the youngest two years old – to come to his home. When we got to his home he told me that he was the consul-general of Portugal in France and that he had 13 children. He offered us to use all the comforts of his home, but I realized that I couldn’t do that because I couldn’t part from all the people who were out in the streets, and also because the house was filled with [Christian] statues, which terrified our children who refused to eat. I thanked him for his kindness. In the morning we joined the people outside and then I returned to his place and explained that there was only one way to help us – giving us visas to Portugal.
As we were talking, the vice-consul heard what we had said in the French language, and warned him not to fall in the trap of granting visas. He said it in Portuguese, but to no avail. Mr. Mendes told me that he would give visas to my family and myself, but that he would have to seek his ministry’s permission for the other refugees. I tried to influence him not to listen to his deputy, and then he said that I could announce to the refugees that anyone who wished to have a visa could receive one. I immediately announced it to the refugees. All the refugees got visas and he sat all day long and signed them. I helped him in putting the stamps in the passports and then he would sign. He didn’t eat nor drink the entire day until late at night, and within a short time gave thousands of visas until the perpetrators came closer and we had to escape through Spain.
On October 18, 1966, Yad Vashem recognized Aristides de Sousa Mendes as Righteous Among the Nations.