The Portuguese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands From the Nazis

Before reading this story, you should picture the movie Casablanca, and the desperation of the many refugees who just wanted to go somewhere safe. The following true story about desperate World War II refugees actually plays into the movie eventually.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a diplomat at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux, France, when Hitler's army invaded France in 1940. Refugees from Paris and all over the country headed south, hoping to cross into a safe country. Portugal was officially neutral regarding Hitler's march across Europe, and seemed a likely destination. But Portugal was ruled by the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, who had forbidden Portuguese consulates to issue visas for refugees. Salazar wanted to keep the war at arm's length. Sousa Mendes had already gotten into trouble with his superiors for issuing a few visas here and there. Then he met a Polish rabbi named Chaim Kruger (pictured above with Sousa Mendes) who had fled from Belgium with his family ahead of the Nazis. Sousa Mendes told the rabbi that no visas could be arranged.    

Quietly, however, Sousa Mendes did request permission from Lisbon to issue the visas, and on June 13 the Foreign Ministry responded: “Recusados vistos.” Visas denied. Flouting his superior, Sousa Mendes offered Kruger the papers anyway. Kruger declined them. “It is not just me who needs help,” he told Sousa Mendes, “but all my fellow Jews who are in danger of their lives.”

Suddenly, Sousa Mendes’ selfless effort to help a new friend, to aid a single Jewish family, was revealed for what it truly was: A choice between saving himself and saving thousands, between obeying his government and obeying his conscience. The dilemma was so destabilizing that Sousa Mendes stumbled into his bedroom “as though he had been struck down by a violent disease,” his son recalled.

He finally emerged three days later. “I am going to issue a visa to anyone who asks for it,” he announced. “Even if I am discharged, I can only act as a Christian, as my conscience tells me.”

And so he did. Sousa Mendes issued thousands of visas in the next couple of weeks in Bordeaux, then moved to other French cities where refugees had gathered to sign more, to anyone who wanted to escape. Some of those refugees were people you've read about here at Neatorama. He even went to the Spanish border, where word had been sent not to honor Sousa Mendes' visas, and he managed to personally escort refugees across the border. But in Portugal, Salazar made sure Sousa Mendes paid for his actions. Read the story of the diplomat who followed his conscience at Smithsonian. 

(Image source: sousamendes.org)

See also: Holocaust Hero Chiune Sugihara


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