In 1940, less than a year into what would become the deadliest war ever waged, a lifelong Portuguese diplomat named Aristides de Sousa Mendes, assigned to a consulate in Bordeaux, France, was faced with a rending choice: Defy orders, thereby risking his position, his very livelihood and the safety of his wife and 12 children, or carry out his duties and leave the fate of tens of thousands of refugees to advancing Nazi forces.
Sousa Mendes' story, 79 years later, remains largely unknown. But because of his choice — which almost certainly saved the lives of many of those refugees and their families, including thousands of Jews — his is a story that directly touches many thousands more today.
"He's a hero. He's a man who risked everything and lost everything and displayed incredible moral courage. That's really the key phrase. Moral courage; the idea that one person can make a difference," says Dr. Olivia Mattis, the president and chief operating officer of the Sousa Mendes Foundation. "Anyone can display moral courage if the opportunity presents itself. You can choose to go left or you can choose to go right. There's always the easy choice and the hard choice.
"Not everyone will be presented with the historical factors that he was ... but the idea is to not be a bystander."
A Career Diplomat, a Career Choice
Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches was born in the town of Cabanas de Viriato, Portugal in 1885. After graduating from Portugal's centuries-old University of Coimbra with a law degree, Sousa Mendes was deployed to Portuguese consulates throughout the world: Zanzibar, Brazil, San Francisco, Spain, Belgium. In January 1938, he was assigned to the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux, France.
Under Adolf Hitler, Germany invaded Poland the next year, prompting Portugal — trying to remain neutral in the burgeoning conflict that would become World War II — to distribute what was known as Circular 14. The order decreed that Portuguese consuls deny travel into Portugal for refugees fleeing the Nazi-occupied countries in Europe, including Jews.
By June 1940, throughout Europe, millions of people were on the move, trying to stay ahead of the Nazis (who had walked into Paris on June 14, 1940). The streets of Bordeaux, in southern France, became crammed with those trying to make it to the border, slip through Spain and into Portugal, where they hoped for passage to safer places.
"The refugees were running for their lives. The New York Times has estimated there were 6 to 10 million people on the move at that point," Mattis says. "We're talking about a catastrophe of biblical proportions. Even more than biblical."
Knowing what could happen to him and his family if he defied Circular 14, but seeing the terror unfold before him, Sousa Mendes was torn. He offered visas to a Polish rabbi he had befriended, Chaim Hersz Kruger, and his family. But Kruger, who had fled from Belgium, turned down the offer and tried to convince Sousa Mendes to help everyone that he could.
After days of seclusion and prayer, Sousa Mendes — a devout Catholic — decided to act. From a letter he wrote:
With the help of Rabbi Kruger, his own family and others, Sousa Mendes devised an assembly line-like system to stamp and sign thousands of transit visas, for anyone who applied. He traveled in person to a consulate in southern France (and called another) to order diplomats to do the same.
His nephew, Cesar Mendes, described the scene (again, from the Sousa Mendes Foundation):
Tens of thousands of people, including thousands of Jews, were granted visas under Sousa Mendes' authority. Historian Yehuda Bauer has said Sousa Mendes performed "perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust."
Among those saved was a 7-year-old boy, suffering from appendicitis, fleeing his home in war-ravaged Belgium. His name: Daniel Matuzewitz. He is Olivia Mattis' father. Matuzewitz is now Daniel Mattis, a retired professor of physics at the University of Utah.
In all, 12 members of Daniel Mattis' immediate family were rescued by Sousa Mendes. Dozens more that sprung from that original 12 — including Mattis' daughter Olivia — are alive today because of his actions. And that's just one family represented among the thousands of people Sousa Mendes saved. "They were hoping for a miracle," Mattis says of the refugees. "And he was that miracle."
The Cost of His Actions
In July 1940, Sousa Mendes was recalled from Bordeaux to face trial for his insubordination. From his statement to the court:
Sousa Mendes argued that his actions were not only morally defensible, but that Portugal's constitution prohibited persecution based on religion. He was convinced he was right on both counts. "I would rather stand with God against Man," he reportedly said at one point, "than with Man against God."
In October 1940, he was found guilty, relieved of his duties and essentially blacklisted by the government of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar for the rest of his life. Sousa Mendes died in 1954, at the Franciscan Hospital for the Poor in Lisbon, broke and without any recognition for the deeds that saved thousands of lives and enabled those of many thousands more to be fully lived.
Toward the end of his life, Sousa Mendes was asked about that fateful June when his life changed with all those others. "I could not have acted otherwise," he said, "and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love."
Recognizing Sousa Mendes
Time has been slow to acknowledge Sousa Mendes' sacrifices. But recognition is coming. Sousa Mendes is now often cited along with Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved more than 1,200 Jews during World War II and was memorialized in a novel and the 1993 Steven Spielberg film, "Schindler's List."
Still, it wasn't until his children spent decades trying to get their father's name cleared — and eventually the Portuguese dictator Salazar died in 1970 and his successor was overthrown in 1974 — that the historic wheels of justice began to turn for Sousa Mendes. In 1966, his daughter Joana Sousa Mendes finally won the petition for her father to be named as a Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem's honorific for non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust. Twenty years later in 1986, a tree was planted in Sousa Mendes' honor at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, by Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, then-director of its Department of the Righteous.
In 1987, at the urging of the U.S. Congress, the Portuguese government officially apologized. Sousa Mendes has since been honored with postage stamps, the Grand Cross of the Order of Christ, and streets and parks have been named for him.
In 2010, after her father's accidental discovery of Sousa Mendes' identity (see sidebar below), Mattis, along with Sousa Mendes' grandchildren and descendants of other family members saved, co-founded the Sousa Mendes Foundation. "I realized how much their family suffered," Mattis says, "so my family, and families like mine, could live."
The foundation has compiled a list of about 3,800 Sousa Mendes visa recipients, in 49 different countries, and is constantly looking for more. The foundation also interviews survivors and gathers their histories, educates people about the Sousa Mendes story, is dedicated to restoring Casa do Passal, the Sousa Mendes home in Cabanas de Viriato, and plans to help open a museum there.
The Sousa Mendes Foundation represents one man's courageous and selfless actions, and the work of the foundation continues in that same vein today.
"There is a noticeable and documented rise in hate crimes the last few years. We need to constantly remind people that violent words lead to violent actions. And that cannot be tolerated," Mattis says. "Words of incitement, the rise of the far right, is always bad news. That's the most urgent thing.
"Our foundation is not going to make a dent in any of that," she adds. "But we can try."