Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul who saved thousands of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust

An exhibition commemorating the memory of Portuguese Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Righteous Among the Nations, whose humanitarian actions during World War II saved many Jewish lives was inaugurated at the Knesset on 17 December. (Via: Rua da Judiaria)

"I will not condone murder, therefore I disobey and continue to disobey Salazar."
"I would rather be with God against men, than with men against God."
"I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love."

From the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (extracts).
“In May, due to the German advance, the consulate was besieged by thousands of desperate people. Austrian, Polish and Czech officers. Anti-nazis from France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Intellectuals, artists and journalists who had condemned fascism. Thousands of Jews who, if caught, would have been sent to extermination camps. Rabbi Chaim Kruger and his family, whom the Consul took to his residence, were among them.
He sent hundreds of coded telegrams requesting authorization to issue visas. In June, due to the imminence of the French-German armistice, the soldiers surrounded the consulate. The diplomat opened the doors to the refugees. The reply from Lisbon was categorical: no visas.
Elderly people. Pregnant women. Children whose parents had died in the routes because of the German bombs. Thousands of hungry people sleeping on the floor and the stairs. Sousa Mendes fell ill. In three days his hair went white.
On the fourth day, June 16, 1940, he got up and faced the crowd: "I cannot allow you to die. Most of you are Jewish and our Constitution established that neither religion nor political beliefs can be used as an excuse to reject the staying in Portugal".
The Consul created a "line of assembly" with his sons, his secretary and the Rabbi. The free visa marathon lasted three days and included the Austrian Imperial family, the Habsburg. On June 19, Germany bombed Bordeaux.
Sousa Mendes traveled together with the terrified crowd that ran way towards the south. In Toulouse he authorized the vice-consul to stamp passports. In Bayonne he signed more visas. While Salazar was sending officials to stop him, the Consul continued stamping his name in Biarritz and Hendaye, already on the border and even on the bridge. He wrote the magic signature on any document and even in pieces of newspapers. On June 23 he was caught.
The dictator received the gratitude of the refugees, he kept the borders open - through the route established by Sousa Mendes a million people escaped -, but he ordered to judge him. To the catholic convictions of the Consul, the disciplinary council opposed the violations to the rules. Sousa Mendes was removed form office and his name prohibited for decades.
There was no job for the sons. The family started eating with the refugees at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Confined in Cabanas de Viriato, Sousa Mendes suffered hemiplegia. In 1948 Angelina died. One by one, the HIAS took his sons out of the country. After the diplomat's death, the house was put up for auction. All the furniture had already been sold; the doors had become firewood.
Only in 1987, President Mário Soares publicly asked for forgiveness to his relatives. The 10,000 Jews who owed him their lives had not forgotten him. The monument erected opposite to his house resume his spirit: "I would rather be with God against men, than with men against God"."

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