The Insubordinate Consul
The Portuguese diplomat, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, was his country’s consul general in Bordeaux, France. The German occupation prompted tens of thousands of refugees, including thousands of Jews, to flee southward from the northern departéments in the hope of exiting France via the only remaining avenue of escape, the southern border into Spain and Portugal, and then sailing for America. The Portuguese dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, permitted holders of visas for overseas to transit through Portugal, but closed the borders to refugees without visas, thus shutting the last avenue of hope. Some 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews were desperately trying to obtain the piece of paper that would extricate them from France. Sousa Mendes, a devout and good-hearted Catholic, decided to help the refugees despite his government’s orders. He promised Rabbi Haim Kruger to issue transit visas to everyone in need, adding that those who could not pay the fees would receive them at no 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 transit permits. A rumor about Sousa Mendes’s actions reached Lisbon, which summarily ordered him to return to his homeland at once. The Portuguese Government dismissed Sousa Mendes from his position in the Foreign Ministry and left him destitute and unable to support his large family. He explained his actions: “If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian [Hitler], surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews.” Sousa Mendes died penniless in 1954; not until 1988, thanks to external pressure and his children’s efforts, did his government grant him total rehabilitation.
On October 18, 1966, Yad Vashem recognized Aristides de Sousa Mendes as Righteous Among the Nations.