Last month, the city of Jerusalem dedicated a square to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who was first honored by Yad Vashem 1966 for his heroic efforts to save Jews from the Nazis’ grip. Jane M. Friedman, whose grandparents were among those he rescued, tells his story:
Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, when German forces overwhelmed the country in 1940. He defied his own government and issued thousands of visas that allowed an estimated 30,000 refugees to escape. Ten thousand Jews were said to have been saved. . . . In fact, historians believe that Sousa Mendes may have been responsible for the largest rescue by a single individual during the Holocaust.
Sousa Mendes paid a heavy price for his heroism. The Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar had prohibited visas for Jews and stateless people. Sousa Mendes, a deeply observant Catholic, knew what would befall the masses huddling around his consulate if he didn’t give them the visas they were begging for. He went to his bed and, emerging three days later, announced that he would grant visas to all who asked.
With his two sons and a ḥasidic acquaintance, Rabbi Chaim Kruger, who had pleaded with the consul to defy his own government, he established an assembly line, issuing thousands of visas over the next few days until Salazar ordered him back to Lisbon.
Sousa Mendes was tried, expelled from the foreign service, and stripped of his salary and pension. He died in poverty in 1954. His twelve children were pariahs in their own country. Most fled Portugal, establishing new lives elsewhere without the burden of the past. It took decades for Portugal posthumously to restore his ambassadorial status.