In June of 1940, millions of refugees clogged the roads of France, as the Nazis were marching southward at a rapid clip. The refugees came from all of the Nazi-occupied lands including Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and France. In June and July 2016, after 76 years, a group of 45 people from Austria, France, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United States are retracing the exodus route, beginning in Bordeaux, France and ending in Lisbon, Portugal, in a trip dubbed the Journey on the Road to Freedom. The group is mainly comprised of families whose lives were saved by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux. The delegation also includes two grandsons of Sousa Mendes and five Holocaust educators.
During the war years, Portugal was led by the dictator António Salazar, whose policy forbade the issuing of visas to the majority of refugees. A decree called “Circular 14” specifically targeted Jews, Russians, and the stateless as classes of refugees to be excluded from Portuguese soil. Sousa Mendes, a devout Catholic, defied his government and acted autonomously in giving visas to thousands, stating “I would rather stand with God agains man than with man against God.” As a result, he was recalled to Portugal and disciplined, dying in misery and disgrace in 1954. Posthumously, he was honored as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in 1966. The Journey on the Road to Freedom is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his being so designated.
Famous Sousa Mendes visa recipients include the Curious George authors Hans and Margret Rey, the painter Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala, and the recently deceased actress Madeleine Lebeau, most famous for her rendition of “La Marseillaise” in Casablanca. Political figures rescued by Sousa Mendes include Otto von Habsburg, the Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg, and leading figures in the Belgian cabinet. However, most visa recipients were ordinary men, women and children, mainly Jews, escaping Nazi persecution. To date, more than 3700 visa recipients have been individually identified by the Sousa Mendes Foundation, and the total is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
On the Journey on the Road to Freedom the pilgrims will cross the footbridge linking France to Spain at Hendaye and Irun, marking the escape from a Nazi-occupied country to a neutral one. In Portugal they will enter at Vilar Formoso, where they will unveil a cornerstone of the future “Frontier of Peace” museum, scheduled to open within the next two years. At the Sousa Mendes family manor in Cabanas de Viriato, site of a future museum to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a ceremony will be held. Other stops will include cities and villages where the refugees of 1940 lived, including Caldas da Rainha, Coimbra, Curia, and Lisbon. The participants will also visit the archives of the Portuguese Foreign Ministry, where they will see the original 1940 visa registry book, in which the names of the visa recipients are listed. The journey will end with a symbolic boat ride in Lisbon harbor to mark the final boat ride taken by the refugees of 1940 to final destinations in the Americas and across the globe.
The trip is being organized by the Sousa Mendes Foundation, a US-based organization formed as a partnership between the Sousa Mendes family and the families of those he saved.