Yad Vashem recognized Aristides de Sousa Mendes as Righteous Among the Nations on October 18, 1966
The Insubordinate Consul – Aristides De Sousa Mendes
Aristides de Sousa Mendes was Portugal’s consul-general in Bordeaux, France. The capitulation of France in June 1940 prompted tens of thousands of refugees, including thousands of Jews, to flee southward from the northern part, hoping to leave France by crossing its southern border into Spain, from there on to Portugal, and finally sailing for America.
Until May 10, 1940 entrance visas to, or transit permits through Portugal could be obtained at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux. On that date, when Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, the Government of Portugal prohibited further crossings by refugees, especially Jewish refugees. The meaning was that the last avenue of hope was now closed. British citizens recommended by the British consul were permitted to get visas. Some 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, congregated at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux and applied pressure to obtain the piece of paper that would extricate them from France.
Sousa Mendes, a devout and good-hearted Christian, seeing the terrible plight of the refugees, decided to disobey his government’s explicit instruction. He received a delegation of refugees at the consulate, headed by Rabbi Haim Kruger, 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. It reminded him of the sight at his consulate in Bordeaux. Although he had been recalled, Sousa Mendes entered the consulate and, ignoring the objections of the local consul, ordered him to issue visas to all applicants at once. He stamped the visas personally, adding in handwriting, “The Government of Portugal asks the Government of Spain kindly to allow the holder of this document to cross Spain freely. The holder of this document is a refugee from the conflict in Europe and is en route to Portugal.” After providing all applicants with this much sought-after document, Sousa Mendes personally escorted them to a Spanish border post and made sure they crossed safely.
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. He died penniless in 1954. Only in 1988, thanks to external pressure and his children’s efforts, did his government grant him total rehabilitation.
When asked to explain his actions, he said: “If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian [Hitler], surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews”.
From the testimony of Rabbi Haim Krieger, 1966
This man was a Righteous Among the Nations. He also told me that he was a descendent of the Jews who had been forced to convert in the Middle Ages.
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] statutes, 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 in the night, and within a short time gave thousands of visas until the perpetrators came closer and we had to escape through Spain. When we reached the Spanish border the Portuguese Foreign Ministry had already decreed that the visas the consul had issued were worthless. It was on the eve of Shabbath [Friday evening]. We asked the border guards to let us cross the border in transit through Spain. While we were standing there, begging the border guards, the consul appeared and told us to wait while he would talk to them. An hour or two later it was he who opened the gate for us….
I went to Lisbon with my family, and there Mendes visited us. He told us that he had been fired because of his help, but that he was content, and if thousands of Jews were suffering because of one Catholic, one Catholic could suffer for all the Jews. He said that he accepted it with love….”
From the testimony of Cesar Mendes, Sousa Mendes’ nephew
I decided to join my uncle. Later on when I arrived in Bordeaux and approached the consulate of Portugal I noticed immediately that a large crowd of refugees was heading that way. The closer I got to the consulate, the larger the crowd. They wanted desperately to get visas to go to Portugal.
Since 10 May 1940 until the occupation of the city by the Germans, the dining room, the drawing room, and the consul’s offices were at the disposal of the refugees – dozens of them of both sexes, all ages, and mainly old and sick people. They were coming and going; pregnant women who did not feel well and people who had seen their relatives die on the highways killed by airplane machine gun fire. They slept on chairs, on the floor, on the rugs. The situation was out of control. Even the consul’s offices were crowded with dozens of refugees who were dead-tired because they had waited for days and nights on the street, on the stairways, and finally in the offices. They did not eat or drink for fear of losing their places in the line. They looked distraught; they had not washed or changed their clothes or shaved. Most of them had nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
The incidents took such proportions that it was imperative to ask the army to preserve the order. In each room and in each office there was a soldier. These soldiers were under the orders of a sergeant. At that time the chancellery was located on the first floor of a building in the Quai Louis XVIII. It is still located there today. The sidewalks, the front door, the large stairways that led to the chancery were crowded with hundreds of refugees who remained there night and day waiting for their turn. In the chancery, they worked all day long and part of the night. My uncle got ill, exhausted, and had to lie down. He considered the pros and cons and decided to give all facilities without distinction of nationality, race or religion and to bear all the consequences. He was impelled by a divine power (these were his own words) and gave orders to grant free visas to everybody.
As in Bayonne his orders were not obeyed by the consul, he decided to go there himself. The refugees there received him with great joy and renewed their hopes to be saved.
The consulate of Bayonne was under the jurisdiction of the consulate of Bordeaux. My uncle then drove to the frontier to help ‘in loco’ the refugees. From there he went on to San Sebastian to meet the ambassador of Portugal to Madrid who insulted him, but my uncle did not give up and continued his humanitarian action saving refugees until the end when he was called to Lisbon….”