Mendes, Aristides de Sousa°
MENDES, ARISTIDES DE SOUSA°
MENDES, ARISTIDES DE SOUSA ° (1895–1964), Portuguese diplomat and Righteous Among the Nations. Born into an aristocratic Portuguese family, Mendes chose a diplomatic career for himself. After filling posts in various capitals (including the United States and Europe), he was posted to Bordeaux, France, as the Portuguese consul-general. In May 1940, with the onset of the German invasion of France and the Low Countries, thousands of refugees, among them many Jews, headed for Bordeaux, hoping to cross into Spain in advance of the conquering German army and continue via Portugal to lands across the Atlantic Ocean. At this critical juncture, the Portuguese government, headed by dictator Antonio Salazar (who also filled in as foreign minister), forbade the issuance of Portuguese transit visas to all refugees, and particularly to Jews. This virtually also closed the Spanish border to the refugees. Against the grim background of France on the verge of collapse, and with the Germans within striking distance of Bordeaux, in mid-June 1940 Consul-General Mendes came face to face with Rabbi Haim Kruger, one of the fleeing Jews, who pressured him to urgently issue Portuguese transit visas. Rabbi Kruger rejected Mendes' initial offer to issue visas only to the rabbi and his family, insisting that visas also be issued to the thousands of Jews stranded on the streets of the city. After several days of further reflection, Mendes reversed himself and decided to grant visas to all persons requesting them. "I sat with him a full day without food and sleep and helped him stamp thousands of passports with Portuguese visas," Rabbi Kruger related. To his staff, Mendes explained: "My government has denied all applications for visas to any refugees. But I cannot allow these people to die. Many are Jews and our constitution says that the religion, or politics, of a foreigner shall not be used to deny him refuge in Portugal. I have decided to follow this principle. I am going to issue a visa to anyone who asks for it – regardless of whether or not he can pay…. Even if I am dismissed, I can only act as a Christian, as my conscience tells me." The Portuguese government dispatched two emissaries to bring the insubordinate diplomat home. On their way to the Spanish border, the entourage stopped at the Portuguese consulate in Bayonne. Here too, Mendes, still the official representative of his country for this region, issued visas to fleeing Jewish refugees, again in violation of instructions from Lisbon. It is estimated that the number of visas issued by Mendes ran into the thousands. To his aides, he said: "My desire is to be with God against man, rather than with man against God." Upon his return to Portugal, Mendes was summarily dismissed from the diplomatic service and a disciplinary board also ordered the suspension of all retirement and severance benefits. He countered with appeals to the government, the Supreme Court, and the National Assembly for a new hearing of his case – but to no avail. After his dismissal, Mendes reportedly told Rabbi Kruger (whom he met again in Lisbon): "If thousands of Jews can suffer because of one Catholic (i.e., Hitler), then surely it is permitted for one Catholic to suffer for so many Jews." He added: "I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love." Bereft of any income, and with a family of 13 children to feed, Mendes was forced to sell his estate in Cabanas de Viriato. When he died in 1954, he had been reduced to poverty. Two of his children were helped by the Jewish welfare organization hias to relocate to the United States. In 1966, Mendes was posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. After much pressure from private individuals and organizations, in March 1988 Aristides de Sousa Mendes was officially restored to the diplomatic corps by the unanimous vote of the Portuguese National Assembly, and the government thereafter ordered damages to be paid to his family.
J. Fralon, A Good Man in Evil Times (2001); Yad Vashem Archives M31–264; M. Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous (1993), 59–62.
[Mordecai Paldiel (2nd ed.)]