Did you know that a portuguese diplomat, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, saved more than 30.000 Jews and other persecuted minorities during WWII. Outcasted by his own country, costing him his career his family and striped of his pension, died in poverty in 1954.
The consul was still in Bordeaux at the outbreak of World War II and the invasion of France by the Nazi army of Adolf Hitler. Salazar managed to maintain Portugal’s neutrality in the war. On November 11, 1939, he issued orders that consuls were not to issue Portuguese visas to “foreigners of indefinite or contested nationality; the stateless; or Jews expelled from their countries of origin”. This order was followed only six months later by one stating that “under no circumstances” were visas to be issued without prior case-by-case approval from Lisbon. Similar policies against Jewish immigration were adopted much earlier by the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Jewish Virtual Library biography of Sousa Mendes records the consul’s response as follows:
“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 duty of elementary humanity to prevent such an extremity.”
Thus it was in a deliberate act of disobedience that Sousa Mendes issued an estimated 30,000 visas to Jews and other persecuted minorities: political dissidents, army officers from occupied countries, and priests and nuns. These visas were not all to individuals, but sometimes to families; in at least one case, the visa covered a family of nine people. Sousa Mendes was inspired to this act in part through his friendship with Rabbi Chaim (Haim) Kruger, who had fled to France from Antwerp.
The earliest of these visas were issued in the months between the 1939 and mid-1940 decrees, a period during which he attempted to protect his family by sending all but two sons home to Portugal and sending constant telegrams to Lisbon with coded requests for approval of the visas, in order to preserve his post while obeying his conscience. The majority of the visas, however, were issued after a harrowing three-day crisis of conscience in mid-June 1940, shortly after Franco changed the status of Spain from “neutral” to “non-belligerent”, which suggested time was running out for Portugal to follow its neighbor. The consul offered a visa to his friend the rabbi, who responded, “I can’t accept a visa for us and leave my people behind.” The distraught consul took to his bed in confusion from June 14 to the 16th. From his crisis, Sousa Mendes emerged on June 17, 1940, determined to obey what he called a “divine power” and grant visas to everyone in need, at whatever cost to himself.