12 de março de 2008


"Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world"
The Talmud

Aristides de Sousa Mendes (1885 - 1954)

Sousa Mendes family

Aristides de Sousa Mendes
Aristides was born on July 9, 1885, in
Cabanas de Viriato (Viseu) northern Portugal.
He and his identical twin, Cesar, followed in their
father’s footsteps and received law
degrees. They graduated in 1907 from
Coimbra University and both entered
the diplomatic corps. Raised in a
deeply devout Catholic family, Aristides
was to put these values into practice
throughout his diplomatic career.
Aristides married his cousin Angelina
and together they raised their fourteen
children in Spain, California, British
Guyana and Belgium. Evenings in the
Sousa Mendes household were family
events filled with music and concluding
with the Rosary before bedtime.
Unfortunately, these happy times
ended in 1934, when the second son,
Manuel, dropped dead in front of the
family due to a ruptured blood vessel.
Several months later, their youngest
child also died. In August of 1938, the
family moved to Bordeaux, France,
where Sousa Mendes was Consul-
General. Soon, the family would be
caught up in the events of the Second
World War. In the spring of 1940, as
German troops invaded and conquered
Belgium, Holland and then
France, thousands of refugees fled
ahead of the advancing army. The refugees
jamming the roads were Jews,
defeated soldiers, opponents of Nazism,
the elderly, the young. These
refugees sought safety in neutral countries
like Spain and Portugal. The city
of Bordeaux, with its port, was a natural
destination for thousands of the
refugees. However, only the very
wealthy were able to afford the artificially
high prices for passage on a ship.
The only other alternative was to get a
transit visa to leave France and enter
Spain and then go on to Portugal;
people thought they would be able to
get such a visa at the Portuguese consulate.
To add to the fear of the refugees,
the German Army had no mercy
on the crowds on the roads. The refugees
were often attacked by fighter
pilots who killed hundreds if not thousands.
So, the people who survived
the attacks arrived in Bordeaux, hungry
and frightened.
Transit visa
To better understand the moral predicament
Sousa Mendes was about to
be put in, it is important to understand
the political situation in Spain and Portugal.
In Spain, Francisco Franco had
been helped by Hitler during the Spanish
Civil War. By closing Spanish borders
to refugees fleeing Hitler, Franco
could avoid joining the war but still express
his support for Hitler. Portugal’s
premier, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar,
also followed a policy of strict neutrality
but for different reasons. Portugal
had a long standing treaty with England
and a new one with Spain. If Salazar
sided with the English, Spain might invade
Portugal. If Salazar sided too
heavily with Spain, England might pressure
Portugal to join the war on
England’s side. Salazar showed his
solidarity with the Spanish dictator by
following Spain’s policy of not allowing
refugees into Portugal. On May 17,
1940, Salazar sent his diplomats in
Europe a directive that no visa was to
be granted unless they received special
permission from Lisbon. In effect,
this policy kept any Portuguese diplomat
from granting visas to any refugee.
Throughout May, as France
crumbled before the German onslaught,
thousands of refugees tried
to escape to Spain. Spain would only
allow in refugees who had a Portuguese
transit visa, so the refugees’ last
hope was the Portuguese consulate.
The consulate where Sousa Mendes
worked and lived with his family was
literally jammed with thousands of refugees.
Without authority, Sousa
Mendes was suddenly responsible for
the lives of thousands of his fellow human
beings. As the crowds kept pouring
into the consulate, Sousa Mendes
sent hundreds of telegrams to Lisbon
requesting visas. Lisbon’s response
was silence. Tensions increased as
the German Army drew closer to the
city. The consulate was full of people,
sleeping on chairs and rugs, and
Sousa Mendes had orders not to help.
Then, the consul fell ill. For three days,
Sousa Mendes struggled, torn between
service to his country and duty
toward his God. According to his
nephew, after the illness, Sousa
Mendes got up by a “divine power” (1)
and began granting visas to all who
asked. The consul was disobeying
specific orders and in the end it would
cost him his career. But, as he would
tell his government later, “I would stand
with God against man, rather than with
man against God.” (2) The consul set
up a work station and enlisted workers.
Passports were stamped, reasons
given for the visas, and Sousa Mendes
signed them. If refugees had no documents,
visas were stamped on pieces
of paper. Their work continued day and
night and the crowds began to head
for the Spanish border. Spain had to
honor the Portuguese visas-the refugees
were allowed to cross through
Spain to get to Portugal but they could
not stay. Once the refugees reached
Portugal, they could not be denied
entry because the Spanish would not
let them back into Spain. The Premier
of Portugal was furious; Sousa
Mendes had forced Salazar to accept
the refugees. On June 19, German
planes bombed Bordeaux. The terrorstricken
crowds fled closer to the
Spanish border at Bayonne where
there was a Portuguese consulate besieged
by refugees. The staff at this
consulate were obeying their orders
and not issuing visas. Fortunately,
Sousa Mendes had authority over
Bayonne and immediately began issuing
visas. For the next two days, Sousa
Mendes signed his name and stamped
visas which would save the lives of
thousands. When the consul returned
to Bordeaux on June 26, he found a
cable from Salazar relieving him of his
post and ordering him home. As German
troops began occupying Bordeaux,
Sousa Mendes began issuing
Portuguese passports. Although the
passports would not allow people to
cross the border, they could prevent
people from being arrested and deported
to concentration camps. Once
again, he was ordered to stop and return
to Portugal. Ironically, Salazar received
a great deal of praise for accepting
war refugees, a policy he continued
throughout the war. Unfortunately,
he never forgave the man who
began it all. After returning to Portugal,
a disciplinary council found Sousa
Mendes professionally incapacitated.
He was officially shunned and he could
neither work nor retire. With no way to
earn an income, the family was reduced
to poverty. The younger children
could not continue their education
and the older ones were unable
to find work. Eventually, the family began
taking meals with refugees at a
soup kitchen run by the Hebrew Immigrant
Aid Society. Shortly before the
war’s end, Sousa Mendes had a stroke
which left him partially paralyzed. His
beloved wife and helper, Angelina, had
a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948. She
spent the last six months of her life in
a coma in a basement apartment in
Lisbon. Sousa Mendes survived his
wife by six years, never giving up hope
that his name would be cleared. On
April 3, 1954, he died at a Franciscan
hospital in Lisbon with only a niece at
his side. It is believed that at least
30,000 people received visas, including
10,000 Jews. However, Premier
Salazar never closed Portugal’s borders
to war refugees and it is estimated
that one million refugees were
able to escape through Portugal because
of what Sousa Mendes had done.
Other sites to visit:
Postagem em portugues:

I will not condone murder, therefore I disobey and continue to disobey Salazar.
My desire is to be with God against men, rather than with men against God.
If thousands of Jews can suffer because of one Catholic [Hitler], then surely it is permitted for one Catholic to suffer for so many Jews.
I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love.

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