Eighty Years Later, Portugal Honors a Heroic Diplomat Who Sacrificed His Career to Save Jews

Last Tuesday, the Portuguese parliament decided to memorialize Aristides de Sousa Mendes (1885-1954), who served as consul to Bordeaux when World War II began, alongside the country’s other heroes in Lisbon’s National Pantheon. James Badcock tells his story:

It was mid-June 1940 and Hitler’s forces were days from vanquishing France. Paris fell on June 14 and an armistice was signed just over a week later. Portugal’s diplomatic corps was under strict instruction from the right-wing dictatorship of Antonio Salazar that visas should be issued to refugee Jews and stateless people only with express permission from Lisbon. For those thronging Bordeaux’s streets hoping to cross into Spain and escape Nazi persecution, there was no time to wait.

In Bordeaux, the consul had struck up a friendship with Rabbi Chaim Kruger, [who] had fled the Nazi advance from his home in Belgium. Sousa Mendes offered the rabbi and his immediate family safe passage across the Spanish border. . . . Kruger refused the offer, as he could not abandon the thousands of other Jewish refugees in Bordeaux.

At this point, Sousa Mendes suffered from what he termed a “nervous breakdown,” and was bedridden for a few days, during which, according to one witness, his hair turned gray. His internal crisis ended by June 17, when he announced that he would be giving visas to all who requested, regardless of their “nationalities, races, or religions.”

No one knows for sure how many transit visas [Sousa Mendes] issued, allowing refugees to pass from France into Spain and to travel onward to Portugal. But estimates range from 10,000 to 30,000; most [of the visa holders] sought to cross the Atlantic to a variety of American destinations. The U.S.-based Sousa Mendes Foundation has identified some 3,800 recipients of these visas.

As if possessed with a sense of mission, the consul even signed visas on the road as crowds in Bordeaux began to form a human column southward towards the border town of Hendaye. He stopped at the consulate in Bayonne to issue more papers. The foreign ministry in Lisbon began sending cablegrams to Bordeaux, ordering him to desist, amid reports from colleagues that he had “lost his senses.” Spanish authorities declared his visas invalid, but thousands had already made it across the Bidasoa river into Spain’s Basque region.

The Salazar regime relieved Mendes of his post a few weeks later, and he spent the rest of his life in poverty, supported by a Jewish soup kitchen.

Read more at BBC

More about: Holocaust memorial, Portugal, World War II

The IDF’s First Investigation of Its Conduct on October 7 Is Out

For several months, the Israel Defense Forces has been investigating its own actions on and preparedness for October 7, with an eye to understanding its failures. The first of what are expected to be many reports stemming from this investigation was released yesterday, and it showed a series of colossal strategic and tactical errors surrounding the battle at Kibbutz Be’eri, writes Emanuel Fabian. The probe, he reports, was led by Maj. Gen. (res.) Mickey Edelstein.

Edelstein and his team—none of whom had any involvement in the events themselves, according to the IDF—spent hundreds of hours investigating the onslaught and battle at Be’eri, reviewing every possible source of information, from residents’ WhatsApp messages to both Israeli and Hamas radio communications, as well as surveillance videos, aerial footage, interviews of survivors and those who fought, plus visits to the scene.

There will be a series of further reports issued this summer.

IDF chief Halevi in a statement issued alongside the probe said that while this was just the first investigation into the onslaught, which does not reflect the entire picture of October 7, it “clearly illustrates the magnitude of the failure and the dimensions of the disaster that befell the residents of the south who protected their families with their bodies for many hours, and the IDF was not there to protect them.” . . .

The IDF hopes to present all battle investigations by the end of August.

The IDF’s probes are strictly limited to its own conduct. For a broader look at what went wrong, Israel will have to wait for a formal state commission of inquiry to be appointed—which happens to be the subject of this month’s featured essay in Mosaic.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Gaza War 2023, IDF, Israel & Zionism, October 7