Courage to Defy
The Little-Known Story of a Holocaust Hero Who Saved Tens of Thousands
Eighty years ago, as the Nazis marched triumphantly through Paris, a Portuguese diplomat stationed in Bordeaux, France, wrestled with an agonizing dilemma. Aristides Sousa Mendes had been warned by his government not to issue transit visas to Jews fleeing the Germans. Faced with the desperate refugees outside the consulate, however, he was plagued with doubt. Follow orders? Or grant the life-saving documents?
In June, 1940, as the Nazis swarmed through France, the city of Bordeaux was flooded with a hundred thousand refugees. Close to the Spanish border, the port city offered the only sea and land escape from the rapidly advancing German forces. From Bordeaux and nearby towns one could flee cross the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and Portugal.
But only if one possessed a life-giving transit visa.
Thousands of Jews and other citizens from Nazi-occupied lands were seeking this precious document from the Spanish and Portuguese consulates before the border was sealed. Ordinary mid-level consular officials such as Sousa Mendes who regularly issued visas suddenly found themselves holding in their hands the lives of multitudes of human beings on the run.
Most of these diplomats heeded orders from their respective governments to withhold visas from Jews, thus closing off the last avenue of hope from Jews trapped in France.
Although technically neutral, Spain and Portugal were in the grip of fascist-leaning regimes concerned about not antagonizing Hitler. Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s dictator, for example, had issued the infamous Circular 14 directive, which ordered diplomats to deny visas to Jews, Russians and other stateless people.
Sousa Mendes had been previously stationed in Belgium where he had contact with Polish refugees who had survived Nazi massacres. As yet unaware of the magnitude of Hitler’s unfolding war against European Jewry, he knew the fate of the Jews in Nazi-occupied lands.
He also knew that his visa-granting authority had been significantly reduced for the time being. Under no circumstances was any visa to be granted unless authorized by Lisbon on a case-by-case basis, the new protocol made clear.
Mendes, however, did not respect the protocol; it contravened Portugal’s constitution which forbade discrimination based on race or religion. He thus fired off hundreds of telegrams to Lisbon with the aid of his son, Pedro Nuno. Each telegram detailed an individual visa request from one of the refugees pleading for help. Pedro Nuno carried stacks of telegrams to the post office, but from Lisbon came only refusals.
Crisis In Bordeaux
Meanwhile, German dive-bombers and fighter jets roared at treetop level along the roads, raining death on the endless columns of helpless people as they trudged toward Bordeaux. Traumatized refugees streamed into the city, some on baggage-laden wagons, others on bikes and on foot. They congregated in a huge open field, without access to food, shelter or sanitary facilities.
Some fell exhausted on park benches and sidewalks; others moved on to the imposing Portuguese consulate at 14 Quai Louis XVIII to plead for passports and visas.
Among the refugees were Jews from Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, Austria and France. A sizable number huddled in the huge square facing the city’s Great Synagogue. Some had survived Nazi massacres in their homeland and were well aware of what their fate would be when the Germans arrived. Mustering their last reserves of strengths, they too began converging on the road toward the Portuguese consulate.
From his office, Mendes took in the shocking sight of a desperate mass of humanity thronging toward the consulate, cramming the building to overflowing.
A Yad Vashem testimonial by Cesar Mendes, a nephew of Sousa Mendes, who had fled Paris after the German occupation and arrived in Bordeaux to help his uncle, captures the atmosphere of crisis.
“The dining room, conference room, halls and stairways were overflowing with distraught refugees … men and women of all ages,” Cesar Medes recalled. “Even the consul’s offices were crowded with exhausted people who had spent days and nights on the street waiting for their turn. They did not dare eat or drink for fear of losing their places in the line. They hadn’t washed or changed their clothes or shaved. Some had collapsed. They slept on chairs, on the floor, on the rugs…The situation was one of pure desperation.”
Sousa Mendes was tormented by what he saw. He cabled Lisbon again and again, asking for instructions on how to deal with the humanitarian crisis. He was brusquely ordered to enforce “Circular 14.”
The Consul and The Rabbi
And then, driving through the streets of Bordeaux one day, he signaled his driver to stop in front of the Great Synagogue of Bordeaux, where masses of refugees Jews were gathered. His eyes rested on a tall, dignified-looking young man in rabbinic garb who appeared to be their leader. Not knowing why, he got out of his car and approached him, asking his name.
The man was Chaim Kruger, a young rabbi originally from Poland who had fled to Belgium with his family to avoid anti-Semitic persecution, and was now a refugee again. He indicated his wife and five children, ages two to ten, all living in the synagogue square while praying for a miracle to allow them safe passage through Spain to Lisbon.
As Rabbi Kruger recounts in his testimony for Yad Vashem, the two spoke in French. Mendes invited Kruger and his family to his home, where he offered them food and shelter. They ended up conversing for hours that night. In response to Rabbi Kruger’s request for help in acquiring transit visas for the refugees, Mendes explained that regulations forbade it. But he went ahead and cabled Lisbon for a visa on behalf of Rabbi Kruger and thirty other Jews. As he expected, the requests were all denied.
Sousa Mendes then assured the rabbi he would do everything in his power to get around regulations to obtain the necessary papers for him and his family. Thanking him for his great kindness, Rabbi Kruger told him, “All my fellow Jews are in danger of their lives. I can only accept visas for myself and my family if they can also be helped.”
“The words hit Sousa Mendes like a thunderbolt. For three days, he took to his bed in despair,” according to a biography by Jose-Alain Fralon, “A Good Man in Evil Times: The Story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes.” The moral crisis overwhelmed him and he felt he was cracking.
“Here the situation is horrible and I am in bed because of a nervous breakdown,” he wrote to his son-in-law at this time.
While he wrestled with his soul, his wife stood by supportively, keeping everyone and everything on hold, writes Agnes Grunwald-Spier in “The Other Schindlers: Why Some Chose To Save Jews In The Holocaust.”
On June 17, Sousa Mendes suddenly emerged from his seclusion. According to his son Pedro Nuno, “My father got up, full of punch. He washed, shaved and got dressed. Then he strode out of his bedroom, flung open the door to the chancellery and announced, ‘From now on I’m going to issue visas to everyone. There will be no more nationalities, races or religions.’”
When challenged as to how he could contravene government orders, he responded, “I would rather stand with G-d against man, than stand with man against G-d.”
Sousa Mendes summoned Rabbi Kruger whose loyalty to fellow Jews had spurred in him a resolve to attempt something wild: saving the mass of humanity outside his window.
He told Kruger of his decision, advising him to collect refugee passports so the work of granting visas could begin. Mendes immediately set up an assembly line process, aided by his wife, sons Pedro Nuno and Jose Antonio, his secretary Jose Seabra, Rabbi Kruger, and a few other refugees.
“Rabbi Kruger’s son, Yaakov, was astounded by his father’s reaction,” writes Agnes Grunwald-Spier. He recalled seeing his father “running excitedly into the street [to collect passports] without his hat and jacket—something I had never seen him do before!”
Henri Dyner, who was a child refugee from Belgium, recounted in a Shoah Foundation testimonial, “My mother recalls that Sousa Mendes disappeared for a few days, and when he reappeared, his hair had turned grey. He then set up an improvised office in the consulate and, with the help of his sons and a rabbi, began to issue transit permits.”
News quickly spread and the consulate was suddenly jammed to capacity. Mendes and his assistants worked well into the night signing visas. As the hour grew late, his signature shifted from “Aristides de Sousa Mendes” to a weary, abbreviated “Mendes.” In three days, he completed thousands of certificates.
As often happens in life, human spite brought an extraordinary burst of generosity to a premature halt.
“Sousa Mendes’s actions were brought to the attention of his superiors by an act of fantastic pettiness,” relates a NY Times article. “An Englishwoman who had been asked to wait a few hours for an ordinary travel visa stormed out of the consulate and filed a complaint.
The British Embassy in Lisbon then complained to the Portuguese Foreign Ministry that Sousa Mendes was operating outside of normal business hours.” They also falsely maligned him, accusing him of demanding fees for visas.
The truth, testified visa recipient Henri Zvi Deutch, was that Sousa Mendes “had waived visa fees for all the refugees in this emergency situation. Many of them never even came inside the consulate for the visa process. There wasn’t time. Sousa Mendes signed their documents without them present.”
Race Against Death
The Englishwoman’s outrage at not being serviced in a timely way triggered fateful repercussions. Portuguese dictator Salazar personally ordered Mendes to shut down, instructing his ambassador to France to investigate what was going on.
By that time, Mendes had driven to a second consulate that he oversaw in Bayonne to continue his work. When the local vice consul arrived, he found Mendes ensconced at a desk where he spent three days feverishly granting visas to long lines of refugees. The local consul was astounded, reporting to Lisbon that Sousa Mendes “appears to have completely lost his senses.”
Furious, Salazar ordered that Mendes be stripped of his right to issue visas. But before this took effect, Mendes made his way to Hendaye, near the Spanish border, where 25,000 refugees had massed around the consulate after Germans bombed Bordeaux on June 19. The local consul had barricaded himself inside the building, refusing to admit anyone.
Mendes struggled through the crowds until he managed to gain entry to the consulate. Explicitly defying Salazar’s orders, he signed not only the passports thrust at him by desperate refugees, but also identity cards and random pieces of paper that, marked with his signature, would enable entrance to Portugal.
His son, John-Paul Abranches, added an extraordinary footnote to this story. “As his diplomatic car reached the French border town of Hendaye, my father encountered a large group of stranded refugees for whom he had previously issued visas. Those people had been turned away because the Portuguese government had phoned the guards and instructed them, ‘Do not honor Mendes’s signature on visas.’
“Ordering his driver to slow down, father waved the group to follow him to a border checkpoint that had no telephones. [This was a little-known crossing he often used to avoid traffic back to Lisbon.] “I’m the Portuguese consul. These people are with me,” father declared from inside the black limousine with its diplomatic license tags, as he escorted the group over the border to freedom.”
Historians estimate that 30,000 refugees received visas from Sousa Mendes, with at least 10,000 going to Jews whose lives would have been snuffed out in slave labor or death camps had they fallen into Nazi hands. But Henri Deutch, one of the recipients, explains that these numbers do not take into account that the visas were not granted to individuals but to families.
“In our case,” he said, “both my father and my uncle each received a visa that collectively rescued nine people. So the true number of people rescued by Sousa Mendes far exceeds 30,000 and will probably never be known.”
In July, Sousa Mendes returned to Portugal to learn that Salazar had opened up disciplinary proceedings against him.
“My intent was humanitarian, to save people whose suffering was indescribable,” he explained in his defense. “Lives had to be saved. I thought of the fate that would be in store for those people were they to fall into the hands of the enemy. Many of them were Jews who had already been hounded and who were trying to escape from the horror of further persecution.”
Sousa Mendes argued that his actions were not only morally defensible, but that Portugal’s constitution prohibited persecution based on religion.
He was found guilty of defying government orders while in service and at Salazar’s behest, was stripped of his consular position, expelled from the Foreign Service and forced to retire without a pension. At age 55, after thirty exemplary years in the Foreign Service, his career was over. Mendes spent the next decade shunned and in dire financial straits. His children too were ostracized.
Salazar, meanwhile, hypocritically took credit for the rescue work Mendes had accomplished, boasting of the humanitarian aid Portugal had given those fleeing the Holocaust. “As regards the refugees, we did our duty, though it is a pity we could not do more,” he said, according to Fralon’s account in A Good Man in Evil Times.
Sometime after his return to Lisbon, Mendes encountered Rabbi Kruger who was making plans to depart for America on one of the last ships leaving Europe. The two embraced in the manner of old friends, recounted Mendes’s son, as described in Grunwald-Spier’s book.
“‘My friend, why did you give up your career to help us Jews?’ the rabbi asked my father. “My father answered, ‘If so many Jews have to suffer for one Christian [Hitler], then it is all right for one Catholic to suffer for so many Jews. I accept it all with love and have no regrets.’”
Sustained by Survivors
In the last years of his life, Sousa Mendes was hounded by creditors who ultimately took possession of the family home. He and his family were reduced to having to take their meals in a soup kitchen run by the small Jewish survivor community in Lisbon.
“To see this tall aristocratic gentleman swallowing his pride to eat alongside the needy was very sad,” noted Isaac Bitton whose father ran the soup kitchen. Mendes also received a modest stipend from HIAS.
As his situation deteriorated, he would sometimes write to the people he had helped, asking for financial aid. On one occasion, Maurice de Rothschild sent him 30,000 Portuguese escudos, a considerable amount of money in Portugal at that time
Sousa Mendes died in obscurity in 1954, at the Franciscan Hospital for the Poor in Lisbon.
In 1966, his daughter Joana won her bid to have her father designated as one of the chasidei umos haolam, Righteous Ones Among the Nations, at Yad Vashem. Twenty years later in 1986, a tree was planted in his honor at the memorial museum in Jerusalem.
In 1987, at the urging of the U.S. Congress and decades of lobbying by the Mendes children, the Portuguese government officially apologized for its mistreatment of a Holocaust hero. Sousa Mendes has since been honored with having his image printed on Portuguese postage stamps, and streets and parks have been named for him.
And this week, the Portuguese Parliament ruled that a special monument be built for him in the National Pantheon.
“Was he a great man? Or was he crazy for sacrificing himself, for possessing so little instinct for self-preservation?” one of his sons asked. “The answer lies in the hearts of all his children when people try to pass judgment on him. I am proud of the fact that I was lucky enough to have such a man as my father.”
From the Testimony of Rabbi Chaim Kruger to Yad Vashem, 1966
We had escaped from Brussels to France together with thousands of our brothers… and now France, too, was occupied by the cursed Nazis. Again we were on the run. After many upheavals and tragedies caused by bombings, we reached Bordeaux. We found thousands more of our brethren in the streets, camping in the square next to the synagogue.
One evening, a big car driven by a chauffeur stopped right near us. The diplomat stepped out and addressed me He invited me to come with my wife and five children – the eldest was ten and the youngest two years old – to his home for food and shelter.
When we arrived there, I discovered he was the consul-general of Portugal in France! He told me that he had 13 children but not all of them were in the country. He had many other refugees staying with his family. He offered us to make use all the amenities of his home, but I realized I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t part from my fellow Jews living in the streets, and also, the house was filled with Christian statues which terrified our children. They refused to eat, even what was permissible. I thanked him for his great kindness.
He found a place for us to sleep in the consulate. He and I spoke for hours that night. He told me his name “Mendes” is of Jewish origin, that he believes he has Jewish roots from centuries ago, when many Jews were forced to become Catholics. I could see he was a devout Catholic but not an anti-Semite.
I told him what the Germans were doing to the Jews in [Nazi-occupied] lands. He was not aware of [the atrocities.] He said he would do everything in his power to get a visa from me and my family to travel to Lisbon. I asked him to do the same for all the Jews but he said it was impossible. There were special regulations that forbade it.
Taking A Gamble
In the morning we thanked him again and left, to join the Yidden in the square. I thought about what to do. I returned to his home and explained that I could not leave my fellow Jews stranded. There was only one way he could help me–by helping all of us. By giving all the Jews visas to Portugal.
As we were talking, the vice-consul heard what we had said in French, and warned him not to “fall into the trap” of granting visas. He spoke to Mendes in Portuguese, but I understood what he was saying.
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 persuade him not to listen to his deputy. I couldn’t tell which way he would go.
A few days passed. They said he had fallen ill and no one could see him. I felt I had taken a gamble and lost. But then he reappeared and summoned me. He said that I could announce to the refugees that anyone seeking a visa to Portugal would receive one, and to turn their passports over to me so he could process the visas.
I immediately circulated the announcement and filled up bags with people’s passports. Some people were afraid it was a trick but I trusted this man. He sat all day long and signed visas by the hundreds. His son and I helped by preparing and stamping the visas, and then he would sign. He didn’t eat or drink the entire day until late at night…this went on for days.
Within a short time he gave out thousands of visas.
Then the wicked ones were about to enter Bordeaux, forcing us to stop and make our escape through Spain.