On May 7, 1945 the German troops surrendered in Western Europe. It was considered the end of World War II in this part of the globe. During the Holocaust, a Portuguese consul saved 30,000 lives. His name was Aristides Sousa Mendes.

Aristides Sousa Mendes (Credits)

Aristides Sousa Mendes: the Portuguese Refugee Saviour in World War II

Aristides Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese aristocrat and diplomat, saved 30,000 refugees -12,000 of them Jews-, during World War II. Aristides was, at the time, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux (France). Against the orders of the Portuguese cabinet’s president, António de Oliveira Salazar, Aristides decided to help those people in trouble, attending to his catholic beliefs and conscience. These were his words: “I would rather stand with God against man, than with man against God.”

Against Salazar’s Orders

Aristides tried to save as many lives as he could. He, his wife, two sons and Rabbi Kruger (a friend from Antwerp) had stamped the majority of the Portuguese visas, between June 16 and 23, 1940, in spite of the Portuguese cabinet’s orders of that month that “under no circumstances” should visas be issued without prior case-by-case Lisbon’s approval. Aristides, to make the visa stamping process quicker, signed them only with his surname, didn’t register them or collected the respective fees. He even stamped visas on pieces of paper. A couple of days later, new orders came from Lisbon to the border with Spain, Hendaye: “Do not honor Mendes’ signature on visas”. Aristides, knowing this, helped those people again, by going there and lead the way to them to another border checkpoint without telephones where those new orders would not be able to be received. Aristides gave visas not only to individuals, but also to entire families, such as the Austrian Imperial Family and he lost his career for it.

The Consequences of his Disobedience

On June 24, Salazar recalled him to Portugal. Aristides, however, stayed in France helping more Jews, and only returned to Portugal on July, 8. Salazar forced Aristides to quit his diplomacy career, stripped his pension and didn’t permit his registration as a lawyer, preventing him from having another income. Aristides, his wife Angelina, and their 12 children (two were already dead) went in great poverty. His faith helped him in those difficult moments. As he said: “If thousands of Jews suffer because of a non-Jewish demon [Hitler], then surely a Christian can suffer with so many Jews.”

The End

Aristides became also very ill. He suffered a stroke just before the end of the war, in 1945. A local Jewish refugee agency began to feed the family. Three years later, in 1948, his wife died. He joined Angelina on April 3, 1954. Meanwhile, their sons reached other countries, searching for new work opportunities which were denied to them in Portugal. On July 29, 1940, Life magazine considered Aristides “the greatest Portuguese since Henry the Navigator”.

Honours and Restoration of his good name

In 1966, Sousa Mendes was honored at Israel Yad Vachem memorial to the Holocaust as one of the “Righteous Among The Nations”. In 1987, the Portuguese Republic granted him the Order of Liberty Medal. Finally, on March 18, 1988, the Portuguese parliament officially dismissed all charges, restoring him to the diplomatic corps by unanimous vote and honoring him with a standing ovation. In 2004, by the 50th anniversary of Sousa Mendes’ death, more than 80 commemorations around the world were held. Religious, cultural and educational activities took place in 30 countries in the five continents. At UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, a great homage was done in memory of Aristides Sousa Mendes on 11 May and 10 November 2005.

A Memory to Endure

“I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love.” On February, 23, 2000, the Aristides Sousa Mendes Foundation was created with the help of the Portuguese government and then it was possible to purchase the old family palace that Aristides was forced to sell to feed his large family. Now, the building needs a great restoration work. If you wish to help Aristides Sousa Mendes Foundation to restore the family house in Cabanas de Viriato, located in the center of  Portugal, please click in the link below for more information: Sousa Mendes Foundation. Here you will find the proper contacts to help the foundation to create a museum with Aristides Sousa Mendes legacy.

A Testimony of a Holocaust Survivor saved by Aristides Sousa Mendes

In the video below, we will be able to listen to a testimony of a Holocaust survivor saved by Aristides Sousa Mendes and how important it is to keep his legacy and endure his memory.

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About the author

Sandra Silva has been living in the Netherlands since December 2007. Photography and travel writing are Sandra’s main activities, alongside learning Dutch and organizing a life abroad. She is a passionate lover of her country, history, photography, poetry, her cat and old photos. Main hobbies are reading and travelling.