Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches was one of the great heroes of the Second World War. As the Portuguese consul stationed in Bordeaux, France, he found himself confronted in June of 1940 with the reality of many thousands of refugees outside the Portuguese consulate attempting to escape the horrors of the Nazi war machine. These persons were in desperate need of visas to get out of France, and a Portuguese visa would allow them safe passage through Spain to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, where they could find liberty to travel to other parts of the globe.
Portugal, officially neutral, yet unofficially pro-Hitler and under the dictatorial rule of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, issued a directive – the infamous “Circular 14″ – to all its diplomats to deny safe haven to refugees, including explicitly Jews, Russians, and stateless persons who could not freely return to their countries of origin. Aristides de Sousa Mendes’s act of heroism consisted in choosing to defy these inhumane orders and follow his conscience instead. “I would rather stand with God against Man than with Man against God,” he declared.
In all, Sousa Mendes issued some 30,000 visas, including about 10,000 to Jews, over the period of a few days. This heroic feat was characterized by the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer as “the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
For his act of defiance Sousa Mendes was severely punished by Salazar, stripped of his diplomatic position and forbidden from earning a living. He had fifteen children, who were themselves blacklisted and prevented from attending university or finding meaningful work. In this way what was once an illustrious and well-respected family – one of the great families of Portugal – was crushed and destroyed. The family’s ancestral home, known as “Casa do Passal,” was repossessed by the bank and eventually sold to cover debts.
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 globe – have fought for decades to have his deeds posthumously recognized.
The first recognition came in 1966 from Israel, which declared Aristides de Sousa Mendes to be a “Righteous Among the Nations.” In 1986, the United States Congress issued a proclamation honoring his heroic act. Later he was finally recognized by Portugal, when its President Mario Soares apologized to the Sousa Mendes family and the Portuguese Parliament promoted him posthumously to the rank of Ambassador. The face of Aristides de Sousa Mendes has now appeared on postage stamps in several countries.
But this work is just beginning, and you can help. It is important to continue to share this history and broadcast it far and wide, because it stands as a moral example to act against intolerance, racism and genocide today. Furthermore, with widespread recognition, the living survivors and descendants of those saved by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, many thousands of them unaware of the political circumstances and the name of the person who helped them reach safety, may learn the true story behind their survival.