The Portuguese diplomat saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust: the story of heroism and compassion

80 years ago Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese diplomat middle-grade and middle-aged, hair turned gray in a matter of days. He was faced with a choice: to obey his superiors or conscience? Mendez lost his career and pension, but the descendants of those he saved people remember him as a hero, writes the BBC.

Португальский дипломат спас тысячи евреев во время Холокоста: история героизма и сострадания

Photo: Shutterstock

June 9 this year in connection with the anniversary of the courageous act of defiant diplomat the Parliament of Portugal decided to install his bust in the National Pantheon in Lisbon.

The story of a refugee

“We heard that the French surrendered and the Germans are coming”, — shares his memories of Henry’s diner. Then he was three years old, but his memory kept vivid pictures of the flight with his parents from Belgian Antwerp.

“Remember how I woke up from the bombing and as my mother told me that it was thunder. Then my parents turned on the radio and heard of king Leopold, said that the country had been treacherously attacked by Germany. Father in 1938 had no doubt that there will be war, made a plan and kept ready the car,” said Bi-bi-si, a former engineer living in new York.

Eliezer diner, his wife Springs, little Henry and four other relatives, including seven-month-old baby, escaped from under the bombing and went to France.

“Father avoided major roads, traveled to Paris and walked along the [Atlantic] coast. The first time he had moved more than 10 miles from the front line, because it is unknown how long the war will last, and why to get far, unless, perhaps, will have to go back?” — the story of Henry’s diner.

But by the time of arrival in Bordeaux, watching how the Luftwaffe planes attacking the French trenches, having heard the news of continuous German victories, Henry’s parents realized that in Antwerp will return soon.

Order or duty?

On 14 June 1940, the Wehrmacht entered Paris. A week later a short war ended.

In early June, Bordeaux, where Sousa Mendes served as Consul, filled with thousands of Jewish refugees from Northern and Central France. From the North approaching the Wehrmacht, and the further way was blocked by the border with Spain.

The Ministry of foreign Affairs of Portugal, ruled by the dictator antónio de Oliveira Salazar, gave strict instructions regarding the issuance of entry visas is to be decided individually — and only in Lisbon.

Sousa Mendes met with Rabbi Haim Kruger, as well as the family of the Diner, who arrived from Belgium.

The diplomat invited a new friend and his next-of-kin to obtain the Portuguese visa and survived, according to new York historian Mordechai Paldiel, moral shock when Kruger refused to be saved alone.

In a letter dated 13 June 1940, Sousa Mendes is reported to a friend: “the Situation here is terrible. I stayed in bed because of a nervous breakdown”.

“Nobody knows what happened in his soul at the decisive two or three days,” says Dr. Paldiel, 25 years head of the Department of the Righteous among the Nations by the Israeli memorial “Yad Vashem”.

Later in the Lisbon Aristides de Souza Mendes told Rabbi Kruger: “If so many Jews suffer because of one Catholic, not to be fair, one Catholic to suffer for the sake of many Jews?”.

By “Catholics” he was obviously referring to Hitler himself, although it is known that the führer of the Nazi attitude to religion is hostile.

“Visas for all”

On 17 June, the Consul decided.

“Dad walked out of the bedroom with long strides, opened the door to his office and loudly proclaimed: “From this moment I give visas to all! No more nationalities, races and religions!” recalls his son Pedro Mendes.

For Henry’s Diner and his family, it was salvation. They already tried to get the American, British and canadian visas — and everywhere was refused.

Henry’s mother knew Sousa Mendes still life in Antwerp, where he first worked as a Secretary of the Consulate.

Sousa Mendes has included the family of the Diner to the list for visas, which he sent for approval in Lisbon.

“Mom told me that after that, he was gone for a few days, and when he appeared again, all grayer,” says Henry diner.

It was then that the diplomat began the mass issuance of visas contrary to the prohibition of his superiors.

The refugees formed a huge queue in front of the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux and spent the night camping on the street.

“Visas were issued at the long table. My mother a few days helped Mendes to run this pipeline,” recalls Henry’s diner.

Thousands saved

In the United States Fond of Sousa Mendes stores data about 3800 saved them people. Some sources say about 10 and even 30 thousand people.

After taken on the mission to Bordeaux, the Consul went to the South, to the border, where they formed a column of refugees, and went right on the highway.

Colleagues began to report in Lisbon, Sousa Mendes, apparently, has gone crazy. From the foreign Ministry was showered with telegrams, demanding to stop, but the Consul continued to make his own.

After a while the Spanish authorities have declared visas issued by consular invalid. But by that time thousands of refugees managed to cross the border river of Bidasoa. Most of them subsequently went to America.

Among the people who left occupied France with his visa, was Salvador Dali, filmmaker king Vidor, some members of the Rothschild family and the future of the Belgian government in exile.

July 8 Aristides de Souza Mendes appeared to report to their superiors. For insubordination, he was dismissed from the public service and lost the right to a pension.

Later, when the world situation changed, the government of Salazar has appropriated his services and began to brag about the role of Portugal in the rescue of Jews.

55-year-old ex-diplomat for some time had survived thanks to the aid provided by the owners of the Jewish dining room in Lisbon. His family house in cabanas de Viriato fell into disrepair and to this day is neglected.

In 1954, Aristides de Sousa Mendes died in poverty and obscurity. His descendants departed from Portugal.

In 1966, the Museum “Yad Vashem” has included him among the Righteous among the Nations — people who risk themselves to save Jews from the Holocaust.

Only in 1988, the government of Portugal officially withdrew from the deceased disciplinary action.

“Looking at what is happening in the world and now need people willing to stand up for what is right,” says 83-year-old Henry’s diner.


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