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Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Yet Another Unsung Hero of the Holocaust, Is Honored

April 08, 2011 01:54 PM
by James Sullivan
A Portuguese consul to Bordeaux, Sousa Mendes defied the orders of Portugal’s prime minister and issued visas to 30,000 Jews during WWII, allowing them to escape Nazi-occupied France.

Restoring the Reputation of a Holocaust Hero

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Although Oskar Schindler has gained considerable public attention in recent decades for his role in protecting Jews during the Holocaust, he was not alone in his efforts. Many figures have emerged as models of bravery and selflessness in their efforts to save Jews from the horrors of concentration camps.

Irena Sendler transported thousands of Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and into hiding; Soldier of the Polish resistance Witold Pilecki infiltrated the Auschwitz concentration camp in order to provide intelligence to the Allied forces; and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul in Lithuania, signed 2,000 visas allowing Jews to escape Lithuania for Japanese territories.

Another unsung hero whose efforts represent “the greatest act of rescue by a single individual during the Holocaust” is Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Not only did his actions prevent 30,000 Jews from being sent to concentration camps, they also resulted in his public disgrace, and reduced him to poverty through the end of his life.

The Story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Sousa Mendes served as a Portuguese consul to Bordeaux during the Second World War. Following the Nazi invasion of France, Bordeaux’s population swelled with an influx of people fleeing the Nazi-controlled northern areas of the country.

Christian House for The Independent describes a scene of chaos, and notes that under the orders of Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, who was sympathetic to Hitler’s regime, “no Jews or dissidents were to be granted passage to Portugal.”

However Sousa Mendes objected to this order, and in a speech to his staff at the consulate said, “Many of you are Jews, and our constitution clearly states that neither the religion nor the political beliefs of foreigners can be used as a pretext for refusing to allow them to stay in Portugal. I've decided to be faithful to that principle, but I shan't resign for all that. The only way I can respect my faith as a Christian is to act in accordance with the dictates of my conscience.”

In the days that followed, Sousa Mendes “issued 30,000 visas, passports and travel documents.” In doing so he created an escape route from France that saved thousands of lives over the course of the war.

In the aftermath of the war, Sousa Mendes was denounced by Salazar for his disobedience. He was stripped of his title and his assets, and became an outcast in his home country. The strain caused the fracturing of his family, and in 1954 Sousa Mendes died in poverty and obscurity. The Guardian reports that his final wish was that his name be restored.

For a more detailed account of Aristides de Sousa Mendes’s life and his role in granting Jews passage to Portugal, read this article provided by the Jewish Virtual Library.

The Guardian explores the impact of Sousa Mendes’s action, as well as his contemporary reputation in Portugal.

Exhibits in His Honor

This month, two exhibits put on in partnership with the Sousa Mendes Foundation aim to honor the actions of Sousa Mendes, and bring his story to the wider public.

In Salt Lake City, at the University of Utah’s Marriot Library, a nationally touring photography exhibited called “These Are My People!” tells his story through photographs, documents and text.

And in Long Island, at the Mineola Public Library in Rockville Center, an event was held to honor Sousa Mendes and raise funds for a museum that will carry on his legacy. The event held special significance for some attendees, including 71-year-old John Prins, who along with his family was issued a visa by de Sousa Mendes in 1940. On display at the library where a collection of “Curious George” books. Two of those saved by Sousa Mendes were Margaret and Hans Rey, who a year after their escape from France published the first “Curious George.”

Other Heroes of the Holocaust

Irena Sendler

During World War II, Irena Sendler worked for a unit of the Polish underground, Zegota, which was formed to help Jews in hiding. As a health worker, Sendler was issued a pass to come and go from the Warsaw Ghetto, according to The Holocaust: Crimes, Heroes and Villains Web site. In 1942 and 1943, she led some 2,500 children—twice as many as Oskar Schindler—out of the ghetto to safe hiding places.

Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki was a dedicated member of the Polish resistance, formed in the wake of Germany’s defeat of the Polish army in the fall of 1939. He was a co-founder of the Polish Secret Army, later part of the Home Army.

He decided to infiltrate the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he could gather intelligence and organize a resistance movement within the camp. “I was haunted by a simple idea: to agitate the minds, to stir the mass to an action,” he wrote in a report in 1945.

On Sept. 19, he inserted himself into a group of captives with false papers identifying him as “Tomasz Serafinski.” Along with 2,000 other prisoners, he was herded onto a train and taken to Auschwitz, arriving the night on Sept. 21.

Chiune Sugihara

The actions of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul in Lithuania, parallel those of Sousa Mendes. On July 27, 1940, hundreds came to the Japanese embassy in Kaunas, pleading for Japanese transit visas. Sugihara wired the Japanese government three times, asking them to grant the visas. The government denied the request twice and did not respond to the third request. Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko then took matters into their own hands, signing visas for 30 days straight. They issued more than 2,000 visas, and because many of the survivors went on to have children, approximately 40,000 people owe their lives to the Sugiharas.

Oskar Schindler

As a young man, Oskar Schindler joined the pro-Nazi Sudenten German Party. When Germany annexed his homeland, Schindler became a formal member of the Nazi Party and made it his business to profit from the war by taking over two Jewish-owned factories in occupied Krakow, Poland.

As Schindler operated his factories in Poland, the war atrocities that he witnessed began to take a toll on him. When he saw the suffering at the nearby Plaszow work camp, he started protecting Jewish workers at his factories, and arranged for his workers to be moved out of the ghetto and into barracks near the factory.

Schindler even falsified factory records and invented occupations and skills for his workers, claiming that they were essential to the war effort. In 1944, Schindler opened an armaments factory in Brünnlitz, in the present-day Czech Republic. He transferred approximately 1,200 Jews from concentration camps to the factory, ultimately saving their lives.

Denis Avey

After being captured by Nazi soldiers during WWII, Denis Avey, a British soldier was placed in a POW camp adjoining Auschwitz, arguably the most infamous German concentration camp. While there, he twice swapped places with a Jewish inmate overnight, a fact that he only recently revealed. According to the BBC, “[H]e wanted to witness what was going on inside and find out the truth about the gas chambers, so he could tell others.”
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