A brutal new mode of warfare spread fear across Western Europe in the spring of 1940: blitzkrieg. The theory of lightning war – armored thrusts with aerial support – had been developed in the 1930s by British strategists led by Capt. Basil Liddel Hart. But, although they had invented the tank, the British never fully exploited the use of armor as a striking weapon.
Across the English Channel, the concept was readily adopted in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, where Field Marshal Heinz Guderian developed and perfected panzer warfare. Unleashed on Poland in September 1939, blitzkrieg crushed the gallant Polish Army in 28 days and, as one author put it, “the death rattle of a people could be heard around the world.”
Now, in the bright spring of 1940, blitzkrieg was loosed again. Early that May, fast-moving German armor and infantry columns rumbled into Belgium and Holland and, bypassing the vaunted Maginot Line, mushroomed into France. The River Meuse was crossed at Sedan on May 14, and the Nazi spearheads fanned out across France. Outgunned, outmaneuvered, bewildered, and dispirited, the French Army reeled southward before the German juggernaut.
Panic and confusion reigned across France, and the muddy roads were jammed with refugees fleeing southwestward toward the Pyrenees. Hundreds of thousands of French joined the long columns of Belgians, Dutch, Poles, and Jews, a straggling mass of humanity with only one aim: to keep moving, away from the Germans.
French writers have called the multitude that crammed the roads of France for hundreds of miles “le peuple du desastre” (“the people of the disaster”). By some accounts, they numbered in the millions. They used everything that could move-cars, trucks, farm wagons, and pushcarts laden with belongings. Men, women, and children wept and shouted. When their means of transportation eventually broke down, or simply ran out of gasoline, they were abandoned. There was no fuel to be found.
Terrified and dazed from weariness, hunger, and thirst, the refugees continued on foot. Few had much money, and few knew where they were going. They trudged along, pinning vague hopes on the southwestern port of Bordeaux. Beyond lay the Pyrenees, and neutral Spain and Portugal.
But meanwhile, their feeble powers of locomotion posed no challenge for the German airplanes. Stuka dive-bomber and Messerschmitt fighter pilots enjoyed a field day in that late spring of 1940 as they pounced out of the sun upon the slow-moving, defenseless columns. Roaring at treetop level with machine guns clattering, the planes rained hellfire on men, women, and children. Screams pierced the air as all scrambled for cover in ditches or under trees and vehicles. Spread-eagled bodies lined the roads by the hundreds after each strafing. Still, the bedraggled columns wound slowly on toward Bordeaux, and the historic port city braced for the deluge of humanity. As early as May 14, four days after the German invasion of the Low Countries, the Bordeaux daily newspaper, La Petite Gironde, wrote of the imminent “mass arrivals” of refugees.
By the hundreds and the thousands they straggled in. The streets were choked with cars and the refugees slept in vehicles, on park benches, or on sidewalks. Thousands of Jews congregated around the city’s synagogue.
Tempers were frayed and fear was everywhere – fear of being bombed, fear for the loved ones who had become separated, fear of being ordered into the French detention camps and trapped when the Germans arrived. Many, who knew only too well what to expect at the hands of the advancing scourge, scrambled for passports or visas to enable them to leave France.
Most of the hopeful received short shrift. Latent anti-Jewish sentiment, rekindled by Nazi propaganda, mounted in Bordeaux, making it a hotbed of despair for the most helpless. Sea passage, at suddenly skyrocketing prices, was promptly booked up by the wealthy. Escape by land was possible only through neutral Spain and Portugal. From Lisbon, passage to countries beyond Europe was obtainable. A Portuguese transit visa was necessary to exit France, though, for at the time Spain permitted no refugee to enter her territory who could not present one.
Generalissimo Francisco Franco, mindful of the blood debt he owed Hitler for assistance to his fascist cause during his country’s civil war, was determined to keep Spanish soil rigorously closed off to the pitiful multitude fleeing the oppression of Nazism. The policy did double duty: It showed support for the Fuhrer, and kept unwanted settlers out of his still unsettled Spain, where widespread hunger and consequent ill-health plagued the population. Bread was scarce and already severely rationed.
And thus, in Bordeaux thousands of desperate refugees stormed the well-appointed Portuguese Consulate at 14 Quai Louis XVIII; each hoping to gain the all-important Portuguese transit visa before the German Army arrived. They did not know the person in charge of the consulate, only that someone in the building now held their earthly fates in his hands.
Hope for a signature and consular stamp that would allow them to pass through Spain and enter the little country with a long coastline and seaports kept thousands rooted to the pavement day and night, in an ever-widening circle around a building that had become unapproachable.
Consul-General Aristides de Sousa Mendes oversaw the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux in 1940. His colleagues esteemed him an able and dedicated career diplomat. When history catapulted him overnight to the position of custodian of human lives hanging in the balance, he proved that he was far more.
For the hope that the refugees pinned on the consul as Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux was quite ill-founded. The consul served Portugal’s Premier Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, on whose mind weighed heavy concerns. But the plight of those displaced by the blitzkrieg was not one of these.
The policy of strict neutrality Salazar had formally adopted from the outbreak of the war placed him in the unenviable position of having to juggle two suddenly antagonistic claims on his country’s loyalty. England could invoke the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance world’s longest-standing diplomatic union dating back to the Treaty of Windsor-to demand concessions in service of her cause. Closer to home, Salazar was also bound to Spain’s Generalissimo by the March 1939 treaty of Friendship and nonaggression (or Pacto Iberico). The two Iberian dictators understood well how the eruption of war had nicked the six-months-old “Friendship.” Franco feared Portugal’s ties with England, and cunningly assessed the potential interest of his enfeebled Spain in Hitler’s conflict. Salazar evaluated the degree of the Generalissimo’s involvement with the Reich, and tabulated resulting consequences to his own country. As he saw it, were Franco to join the Axis powers, Portugal would be inexorably annexed into some kind of Germanized grander Spain.
To curb the pro Axis leanings of the Spanish dictator, by displays of Iberian solidarity, was Salazar’s primary concern. He used diplomacy, supplemented with gifts of wheat and corn. And he promptly adhered to Franco’s hands-off policy regarding refugees from Hitler’s aggression.
On November 11, 1939, Salazar issued a directive forbidding his diplomats in Europe from granting transit visas to certain categories of people with-out express permission from Lisbon. The categories included “Jews expelled from the countries of their nationality or those from whence they issue,” and “stateless persons,” plus “all those who cannot safely return to the countries whence they come.”
Curiously, Salazar distanced himself from the directive he was putting into effect, claiming instead that it was meant “to avoid abuses, or loose practices” which his Police of Vigilance and Defense of the State (PVDE) deemed “inconvenient or dangerous.” The PVDE, Salazar’s own political police, had much discretionary power but was hardly endowed with policy-making authority. That Salazar kept securely in his grasp.
On May 17, 1940, Salazar gave the clock another turn: “Under no circumstances” was any visa to be granted, unless previously authorized by Lisbon on a case-by-case basis. In practical terms, the new orders from Lisbon meant that the calamities beyond the Pyrenees were to remain beyond the Pyrenees. Portugal was to steer clear of any show of unfriendliness toward Germany, or Spain.
And so, the wretched multitudes around 14 Quai Louis XVIII were looking for their salvation from Someone whose authority had been virtually suspended. As a diplomat, Consul-General Sousa Mendes had nothing to offer them. What happened next is the little-known story of a man who rose above all personal considerations and did the diplomatically unthinkable: He rebelled against service orders and used his office to overturn them, on behalf of humanity.
First in Bordeaux, then in Bayonne and in the streets of Hendaye near the Spanish border, Aristides de Sousa Mendes indiscriminately issued transit visas for entry into Portugal to an astounding 30,000 refugees, beating the Nazis to their lives. By sheer magnitude of daring and weight of numbers., Sousa Mendes effectively opened a refugee escape route where none had existed. It would remain through the war and be used by an estimated million refugees He paved that route with all he had: his good name, position, income, health, friends, and the future of his loved ones.
“I recognize as an act of God that such a man as this was at the right place at the right time,” Moise Elias of New York would write 26 years later to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Authority. Elias was, with his wife, among the fortunate who, in 1940, happened upon “The Angel of Bordeaux,” as Sousa Mendes has been called. By best estimates, 10,000 of the men, women, and children he saved were Jews, who would have ended up in German labor or death camps.
But Sousa Mendes’ conscience pitted him against Salazar. Although a mild version of his tyrannical contemporaries, Salazar nonetheless tolerated no disobedience. Both the hero and his humanitarian feat were officially repudiated. For decades, no mention of Sousa Mendes was allowed in the country where he spent the rest of his days as an outcast. The ostracism extended to his family, inflicting suffering on his wife and children.
The man of courage and conscience who stood alone in 1940 to defy three dictators and defend humanity was deliberately sunk into oblivion. He died a martyr and was denied a page-or even a footnote-in the history books.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes was born on July 9, 1885, in the village of Cabanas de Viriato in the scenic northern province of Beira Alta, Portugal. He was the son of Jose de Sousa Mendes, a well-to-do high court judge, and Maria Angelina de Abranches.
Aristides and his identical twin, Cesar, were raised with strong values centered on the family’s ancestral traditions and profound Catholicism. The twin boys learned to respect the law at their father’s knee, and pursued law degrees at Coimbra University, one of the oldest universities in Europe. They graduated in 1907, with identical grades. Opting for careers in the diplomatic corps, they occupied varied posts over the globe. But the special bond of twinship remained a constant in the brothers’ lives.
Aristides married his beautiful cousin, Angelina, before entering the Foreign Service in 1910. “Gigi,” as her husband called her, was a woman of simple tastes, great heart, and uncommon valor. She would share the burden of her husband’s one-man rally against inhumanity and be victimized along with him, die an atrocious death, and be denied even a common obituary.
From the beginning of Mendes’ diplomatic career, Angelina traveled with him on assignments, pleasant and arduous alike: British Guiana, Spain, California, and elsewhere. Along the way the couple had a total of 14 children. The glamour and adventure of the family’s lifestyle was tempered with many a serious bout of malaria, and the challenges of finding adequate housing and proper schooling.
The year 1929, disastrous for so many, was a good year for the Sousa Mendes clan. The diplomat was promoted to consul-general and assigned to the bustling Belgian port city of Antwerp. He settled with his family in nearby Louvain, where the 13th and 14th children were born. The older sons and daughters attended the famous university.
Evenings were special times for the family. The children played their instruments and the consul displayed his tenor’s range while mother sat by with the youngest on her lap. Before bedtime, the father led the family in praying the Rosary. Not even the maids were excused. Sunday outings after church were de rigueur for the jovial Sousa Mendes, who was passionately fond of joining in the children’s games.
Antwerp was the most rewarding assignment of Sousa Mendes’ career. He became the dean of the diplomatic corps there. The couple’s hospitality was well-known, and the city’s mayor was a frequent dinner guest. Other visitors included Maurice Maeterlinck, and even Albert Einstein. Vacations were spent at the homestead in Cabanas de Viriato, which Aristides enlarged and improved, envisioning golden years with wife and flocks of grandchildren visiting and cheering up the aging grandparents.
It was also in Antwerp that, in 1934, terrible tragedy struck. Gathered around the table to celebrate the university graduation of the second son, Manuel, the family gasped in horror as the graduate sank to the floor and died The autopsy revealed a ruptured blood vessel. Months later, the couple lost also their youngest and 14th child. Their great faith sustained them, but life had been forever altered for this uncommonly cohesive family.
The experience of painful loss in Antwerp may have been an indirect cause of Sousa Mendes’ presence in Bordeaux during the critical months of 1940. He did not ask to be assigned to a consular post in Bordeaux but did ask for a transfer from Antwerp. That son Jose showed no signs of recovering from the death of the brother to whom he was closest may have weighed in that decision.
Sousa Mendes wrote to Lisbon in 1938, requesting a promotion and a post in the Far East. His request was handled personally by Premier Salazar, who responded by naming him consul-general in Bordeaux. Sousa Mendes appealed, twice, but Salazar turned a deaf ear. The family moved to the French port city in August of that year, to the as-yet-ordinary 14 Quai Louis XVIII address. The building provided ample living quarters side by side with office space. Life resumed. The children found new schools and new friends, they liked the mild and sunny climate, and Sunday family outings were now in the French countryside.
Then came the fateful month of September 1939. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, and Great Britain and France declared war two days later. Life as the Sousa Mendes family knew it was over, for Europe’s darkest night was suddenly upon all. One of the consul’s first acts was to take his children to the safety of the homestead in Portugal, where they were cared for by relatives and servants. Two adult sons, Pedro Nuno and Jose, remained in Bordeaux with the parents.
Within days of the new orders, Sousa Mendes was taken to task for having granted a visa to a Viennese refugee, Professor Arnold Wizrntzer. Called to task by his superiors, Sousa Mendes answered:
“He informed me that, were he unable to leave France that very day, he would be interned in a concentration [read, detention] camp, leaving his wife and minor son stranded. I considered it a duly of elementary humanity to prevent such an extremity:”
The infraction was only the first. By April 1940, he had violated regulations often enough to earn a stem official reprimand. The Portuguese border patrol, an arm of the PVDE, kept watch for his transgressions and reported them to his superiors.
As the month of May wore on, besieging the consulate day and night were army officers from occupied Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia; French, Belgian and Luxembourgers anti-Nazis; intellectuals and writers who had denounced fascism; artists and journalists; priests and nuns and countless Jews, all seeking to evade the Nazis’ murderous grasp. Each refugee carried his own fear, and each shared in the collective panic. Some were old, and some were sick. There were pregnant women, and many children who had seen their parents killed on the roads by German gunfire.
Too prudent a father to disregard service orders heedlessly, Sousa Mendes fired off hundreds of telegrams to Lisbon, assisted by his 20-year-old son Pedro Nuno. Each telegram had to be written in code, detailing ‘he individual visa requests. Pedro Nuno carried the stacks to the telegraph office and ensured that they were expedited.
From Lisbon there was mostly silence.
By the second week of June, with talk of an impending Franco-German armistice in the air, tensions increased, and law officers had to be posted in and around the consulate. Aristides and Angelina had opened their home to as many of the neediest as the walls could hold. Angelina cared for them. Of these, one was a 10-year-old Belgian boy, still clutching tightly to a little bag of diamonds; his parents had vanished. Another was a renowned Sorbonne professor, whose home the Nazis had already plowed through. Disabled by fear, he stayed in his pajamas all day long.
And there was a rabbi, Chaim Kruger, with his wife and five children. The Krugers had fled from Poland to Belgium, then from Belgium to Bordeaux. The consul and the rabbi became friends.
More and more, as the silence from Lisbon continued, Aristides and Angelina were living the disaster with the victims. Twice, the consul cabled his superiors requesting authority to deal with the emergency. He was tersely referred to the directives that were already in place. He had his orders, and only Lisbon could approve visas. All told, Sousa Mendes was to remain marooned amidst thousands of the “shipwrecked” – his word to describe the refugees – and he was to accommodate the Nazis who were virtually at the door.
On June 12, Franco changed Spain’s status from “neutral” to a more menacing “non-belligerent.” Salazar depended on Teotonio Pereira, his ambassador in Madrid, to keep a finger on Franco’s pulse. The Germanophile envoy opposed any change in policy regarding refugees and warned that sheltering “the scum of the democratic regimes” would bode ill for Portugal in the eyes of Spain.
The effect that Lisbon’s unremitting silence had upon Sousa Mendes was recorded in an extant account by his student nephew, Cesar, the son of his twin. Cesar Mendes Jr. had left Paris where he attended the university and taken refuge in Bordeaux. He wrote:
“All the rooms in the consulate building were full of people. They slept on chairs, on the floor, on the rugs. Even the consul’s offices were crowded, with dozens of refugees who were exhausted. dead tired, because they had waited days and nights on the street, on the stairways, and finally in the offices.”
“They could not take care of their needs, they did not eat or drink for fear of losing their places in the lines, which happened nevertheless and caused some disturbances. My uncle fell ill, and had to take to his bed... He got up, impelled by a “divine power” – these were his own words – and gave orders to grant visas to everybody.”
The three days of Aristide’s confinement, June 14-16, 1940, bear precious witness to Angelina’s valor. She became the rock, bearing up under the pressure and sustaining her husband as he lay prostrate, rent by anguish. One son, Sebastian, later heard the father speak of a night spent entirely in prayer, together with his wife. It was during those three days that his father’s hair turned white, wrote Sebastian.
What is certain is that on June 17, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a man free of all diplomatic constraints, who worked thereafter exclusively to rescue refugees by the thousands, and who could not be intimidated. According to his son, Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes, “he strode out of his bedroom, flung open the door to the chancellery, and announced in a loud voice: ‘From now on I'm giving everyone visas. There will be no more nationalities, races or religions.’”
The work started immediately. It was an assembly-line operation. Passports were gathered in stacks. and in bags. One person stamped them, others filled in the required wording, and the consul signed them. To save time, he often abbreviated his signature to simply “Mendes.” No fees were collected, and no entries made in the consular registry. Rabbi Kruger, the consul’s two sons, and some refugees assisted on the assembly line. To the countless numbers who had no documents, visas stamped on pieces of paper were handed out
The work continued all through June 17 until well past midnight, and hardly a dent was made on the crowds: Marshal Henri Petain’s radio address, that day, which left no doubt that an armistice between France and Germany would be signed, on Germany’s terms, had brought new waves to the Quai Louis XVII.
The marathon recommenced on the 18th. That day, Henry Count Degenfeld entered the consulate with 19 passports for the imperial family of Austria. Otto of Habsburg’s name was at the top of Hitler’s blacklist. The count was told to return later that night. The woes of the Habsburgs weighed no heavier on Sousa Mendes than those of the people who had waited days and nights.
After 10 p.m., the count returned and received visas for the Archduke of Austria and his entire household. Then, the archduke went himself to the consulate and obtained a large quantity of visas, stamped on paper, for Austrian refugees in hiding.
Otto of Habsburg and his retinue crossed Spain undisturbed, and entered Portugal on June 20. Not long after, the archduke was informed by Salazar that Hitler had demanded his extradition. The demand would be refused, the Portuguese ruler told him but hinted that his safety was precarious. The Habsburgs departed for the United States.
Unaccountably, Sousa Mendes was not picked up for the presumed quasi-incident. In all likelihood, Salazar’s move was preemptive. But the Nazi behemoth went its evil way and did not interfere with the torrent of humanity that had begun to flow through Spain and into Portugal.
Although he did not use force, Salazar did recall his stray consul, on June 24, by way of telegram. Sousa Mendes made full use of his freedom of movement. He remained in France until July 8 and spent himself in saving the endangered. He had initiated an exodus, and as long as his name and his consular stamp could compel the Spanish border patrol to let refugees through, he would not stop.
The thousands of visas emitted by Sousa Mendes were honored at Irulan, on the Spanish border. because the consular stamp made them an official request from one country to another. The Pacto Iberico provided for such niceties between the two nations. But passage through Spain was one way only, with no stops; on that point the Spanish were adamant. As the trains of refugees pulled in at Vilar Formoso, on the Spain-Portugal border, the PVDE raged. The Spanish replied that if they had honored the visas out of courtesy, the Portuguese certainly were bound by them. And the refugees were allowed in.
Sousa Mendes’ stand was a fait accompli to which Salazar and his political police had to bow. A mechanism had been set in motion; once the refugees crossed the bridge at Hendaye-Irun and were granted passage through Spain, there was no return. Sousa Mendes had forced open an escape route for many.
“It was indeed my objective to save all those persons, whose affliction was beyond describing,” he declared later to his government, in a handwritten statement extending to several pages. “The imperatives of my conscience... never ceased to guide me in the performance of my duties, with perfect knowledge of my responsibilities,” he affirmed.
In Bordeaux, the consulate continued to be besieged through June 19. That night, German planes bombed the city. Panic stricken, the crowds decamped and ran blindly for Bayonne and Hendaye, closer to the Spanish border. Sousa Mendes left his wife and sons in Bordeaux. and followed the terror driven refugees.
He made his way through the perilously congested road to Bayonne, where he found the Small Portuguese consulate encircled by some 5,000 persons with another 20,000 lined up along the streets. The consular staffers were effectively caged in and had devised a passageway for themselves through the roof. As for visas to the distraught, the orders from Lisbon were being faithfully obeyed.
Normal service rules gave Sousa Mendes jurisdiction over the Bayonne consulate. He promptly assumed control: visas to everyone. Reassuring his caged-in subordinate, Consul Machado, that he assumed all responsibility, Sousa Mendes recruited all available hands and duplicated in Bayonne the Bordeaux “visa assembly line.” Over the next 48 hours, thousands heard their names called out and were handed the precious, life-giving signature and consular stamp.
Meanwhile, Consul Machado felt obliged to wire Lisbon and report the breach of norms. For good measure, he also telephoned Ambassador Pereira in Madrid. Pereira had no jurisdiction over consulates in France. All the same, he prepared to travel to the frontier and see for himself. It was a trip that would prove fatal to many.
On the afternoon of June 22, Sousa Mendes left Bayonne for Hendaye. France had submitted to the armistice terms dictated by Germany, and the panic of those on the run reached new and explosive levels. They took to the road in a mad frenzy, pushing for the Spanish border. Sousa Mendes wanted to be there.
From Lisbon, two cablegrams were expedited that day, one to Bordeaux the other to Bayonne, instructing Sousa Mendes to stop. But he did not receive either one. By now he was in the Streets of Hendaye, handing out large numbers of visas. At this stage, many of the “visas” were odd scraps of paper, variously worded to the effect that the bearers had the right to enter Portugal and would Spain kindly grant them passage through her territory. The unorthodox documents kept the great exodus moving.
The situation was grim. Sousa Mendes spoke later of those he was not able to prevent from committing suicide in front of him. And Otto of Habsburg recalled in his old age that, as he was admitted into Spain, another prominent figure was turned back. The rejected refugee implored on his knees, but to no avail. Rabbi Kruger wrote that, when he stood at Irun awaiting admittance, disputes arose between the refugees and the Spanish guards. The gate remained closed. This time, Sousa Mendes went inside to mediate. Even though he had no authority to fall back on, he returned in two hours to open the gate himself. One more group scrambled into Spain to board trains for Portugal.
As the afternoon of June 23 drew to a close, Portugal’s highest envoy to Spain, Ambassador Pereira, arrived at Irun to survey the anomaly, and took great offense at what he saw, He wrote:
Aristides de Sousa Mendes did not raise again the border gate at Irun. But a precedent had been set. As the war wore on, many of Europe’s persecuted passed through Spain and Portugal to freedom. As to those whom Pereira cut short, their numbers and fates are unknowable. The AP news agency related, the following day, that some 10,000 persons were trying to cross over into Spain, but that authorities no longer recognized certain Portuguese visas.
The local press also ran the story, the juicy part. The San Sebastian daily El Diario Vasco reported on June 25 that “the Consul of Portugal in Bayonne” had succumbed to insanity. It is not known whether Sousa Mendes’ accuser, Consul Machado, saw the irony in the misprint. He left the post shortly after.
Much of Sousa Mendes’ work among the refugees has been lost to history, but it is known that he began to lead groups to an obscure border post where the guard knew nothing of Teotonio Pereira, and that he did not leave the streets of Hendaye until June 26, when the Germans moved into Bayonne. Returning to Bordeaux, he found Salazar’s cablegram, dated June 24: He had been relieved of his post and was ordered to leave France.
Sousa Mendes did not rush. Wehrmacht units started occupying Bordeaux on June 27, and Hendaye the following day. Many thousands were now definitively trapped. He had more work to do. Portuguese passports could prevent deportation to concentration camps, so he began to issue them discreetly. Many were spared by this action, but it did not go unreported for long. He was again censured by Lisbon and ordered again to leave France.
The return of the solitary hero to Southwestern France posed a dilemma for Premier Salazar. He named a disciplinary council to define charges against the errant consul and determine penalties. But defining charges was not easy. Cities and towns were filled with refugees from many countries, openly voicing gratitude to the regime that had facilitated their rescue in the nick of time. The consul’s disobedience had brought the government much good press. A Life magazine spread on July 29, 1940, dubbed Salazar “the greatest Portuguese since Henry the Navigator.”
The shrewd premier found it far more judicious to let the fiction take root. As had the Habsburgs, so had the government of Luxembourg, some of the Rothschilds, and members of the Belgian Cabinet passed through Portugal with visas from Sousa Mendes without incident to the regime. Salazar embraced the credit. And, lest any ill will might have accrued to Portugal in Spain, he had Ambassador Pereira work promptly on a protocol addition to the 1939 Pacto Iberico. Signed in July 1940, the agreement contained Franco’s assurances that Spain would respect Portugal’s independence.
To his credit, Salazar did not again close the country’s borders against war refugees. Nor did he ever forgive Sousa Mendes for having forced his hand. He refused to see again his ex- consul of Bordeaux, or to communicate with him in any way. After an acceptable amount of paper shuffling, the disciplinary council determined Sousa Mendes’ case one of “professional incapacity.” He was rendered contemptible and officially shunned. The voluminous case files were closed, classified, and locked up.
For Aristides de Sousa Mendes, now a disgraced non-person, the rest of his days would be one long Calvary. He tried many times to obtain a proper hearing but met a wall of silence. His twin, Cesar, attempted to intervene on his behalf, and found himself suspended from his own post for five years.
At one point he told a rabbi in Lisbon,
If so many Jews can suffer because of one Catholic, it's all right for one Catholic to suffer for many Jews.
Unable to return to employment or be retired, Sousa Mendes and his family were in effect consigned to starve. The education of the younger children had to be cut short, and the older ones could not find jobs. In Salazar’s Portugal, all ears were deaf to those shunned by the autocratic ruler. The family began to take meals, along with refugees at a Lisbon soup kitchen run by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).
Occasionally, Sousa Mendes was summoned for a supposed interview with Salazar. He would be kept waiting in the vestibule all day, and then dismissed. Former colleagues ignored his greetings. He was closely watched and interrogated by the PVDE. Active files were also kept on his older children.
The financial hardship and protracted humiliation took a toll. Weeks before the end of the war, Sousa Mendes suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. The children stood by him, as did Angelina, but her own health did not hold for long.
The brave and noble-hearted wife of Aristides de Sousa Mendes had assuaged great pain as streams of suffering humanity invaded her life and her Bordeaux home in those terrible post-blitzkrieg weeks of 1940. But Angelina lacked the strength to see her husband through his punishment. She suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948, and never regained consciousness. With no insurance and little money, medical care was scarce. She remained in a Lisbon basement apartment, where the water rose when it rained. Angelina died, at 60, only after languishing for six months in a state of growing decomposition, remembers her youngest son, John Paul. The censored newspapers did not run an obituary.
Sousa Mendes survived his wife by six years. He hoped that someday his good name would be restored by his government, but it did not happen.
With the help of the HIAS, the traumatized Sousa Mendes children emigrated, one by one, to seek lives in Belgium, Africa, Canada, and the United States.
A destitute outcast in his own country, Aristides de Sousa Mendes died on April 3, 1954, at the Franciscan Hospital of the Tertiary Order in Lisbon. One niece, Madalena, stood vigil at his bedside. There were no obituaries for him either, except for a newspaper in the (then) Belgian Congo.
The heavily mortgaged homestead at Cabanas de Viriato – minus some doors which, to keep from freezing in winter, the ex-consul had already burned – was sold at auction to pay his debts. Then it was looted of its contents. Still standing, the home is in an advanced state of decay.
Next to the half-ruined house stands a memorial: a 40-foot monument to Christ the King, attesting to the spirit of a man who told his government “I would stand with God against man, rather than with man against God,” Sousa Mendes had the monument erected, at nearly ruinous personal expense, in 1933, and it was the first of its kind in the country. The villagers keep the memorial immaculate and point to it with great pride.
Historians have estimated that one million refugees fled from Nazism through Portugal during World War II. The precedent was forcibly created in 1940 by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who paid in suffering for his deeds.
No one knows how many transit visas he issued; estimates range between 10,000 and 30,000, with at least 3,800 identified by the Sousa Mendes Foundation. For his heroic efforts he was recognized by Yad Vashem on October 18, 1966, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Portugal finally granted official recognition to Sousa Mendes on June 9, 2020, and parliament decided a monument in the National Pantheon should bear his name.
Source: This article appeared in the October 1998 issue of Lay Witness, the publication of Catholics United for the Faith. The article is reprinted with CUF permission.
Additional material from James Badcock, “Portugal finally recognises consul who saved thousands from Holocaust,” BBC News, (June 16, 2020);
The authors owe a debt of gratitude to The International Committee to Commemorate Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, P.O. Box 1168, Mesa, AZ 85211, John Paul Abranches, International Chairman.
Photo: Public Domain.