The Portuguese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands of Jews from the Nazis

January 29, 2019 | Richard Hurowitz

After World War II began, Portugal ordered its embassies and consulates not to issue visas to people “of undetermined, contested, or disputed nationality,” and especially not to stateless Jews. But Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul-general in the French city of Bordeaux, simply refused to follow these orders, as Richard Hurowitz writes:

[When] in May 1940 the Nazi Blitzkrieg swept into France, tens of thousands of people descended on Bordeaux by train, car, bicycle, and even foot. Crowds formed at the Portuguese consulate. . . . On June 17, Paris fell. Sousa Mendes became more and more tortured by what he saw. In front of the great synagogue of Bordeaux, he met Chaim Kruger, a young Polish rabbi with his family crowded along with thousands of Jews in the square. Sousa Mendes offered to help, but his request for visas for Kruger and his family was rejected. Sousa Mendes assured the rabbi he would do everything in his power to get the necessary papers.

“It’s not just me that needs help,” the rabbi told him, “but all my fellow Jews who are in danger of their lives.” The words hit Sousa Mendes like a thunderbolt. For three days, he took to his bed in despair. . . . Then he emerged full of energy. “From now on I’m giving everyone visas,” the diplomat declared. “There will be no more nationalities, races, or religion.”

“I cannot allow all you people to die,” he told the refugees.

Kruger collected the passports of the Jews in the square. Sousa Mendes signed them all. Indeed, he reportedly proceeded to sign every visa put in front of him, setting up a veritable assembly line. His two sons along with other members of the family and Kruger prepared the passports and visas for signature, while his deputy, the thirty-two-year-old José Seabra, dutifully stamped them. News quickly spread and the consulate was suddenly filled to capacity. The consul himself worked well into the night signing visas. . . .

Sousa Mendes was later fired for his disobedience and died in penury and disgrace. But those who received visas escaped the horror that awaited them in occupied France.

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