The Arty Semite

A Portuguese Diplomat in the Kingdom of Heaven

By Benjamin Ivry

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Courtesy of Fundação Aristides de Sousa Mendes

The diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who is the subject of a new biography by French author Eric Lebreton (Le Cherche Midi Editions), was the only Portuguese citizen ever recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

“Visas for Life: Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Righteous Man of Bordeaux” relates how in 1940, serving as Portugal’s consul-general in Bordeaux, de Sousa Mendes issued around 30,000 visas for Portugal to anyone who requested one, disobeying direct orders from Portugal’s fascist dictator António Salazar. Two among the thousands whom he personally saved are Rabbi Chaim Kruger of Antwerp and the composer Norbert Gingold.

Soon, Salazar banished de Sousa Mendes from the diplomatic corps and slashed his retirement pension. The full motivations of the consul-general, who died forgotten in 1954, in illness and poverty, long remained a mystery.

Now, in a preface to Lebreton’s book, Simone Veil notes that by saving thousands of lives, de Sousa Mendes was obeying his principles as a devout Christian. Veil ranks de Sousa Mendes alongside Raoul Wallenberg and the humanitarian Chinese diplomat Feng Shan Ho, who also disobeyed orders, allowing Austrian Jews to escape to Shanghai.

Lebreton emphasizes de Sousa Mendes’ family consciousness as a motivating force, since he had 14 children with his wife, and one more with a French mistress. In 1940, back in Portugal and facing a disciplinary tribunal, de Sousa Mendes told his accusers that in Bordeaux, refugee families’ tragic misery “could not leave me indifferent, as I am the head of a large family and know better than anyone about the need to protect them.”

de Sousa Mendes also tried (unsuccessfully) to appeal to Salazar’s sense of chivalry by explaining that issuing visas to refugee women protected them from rape by Nazi invaders, or as he decorously put it, “abrupt Teutonic sensuality.” Aware of his personal status as a sinner, de Sousa Mendes explained to his family that when he signed visas it was a kind of redemption: “Our life will not be as materially comfortable as before, but nonetheless let’s be brave and always remember that by giving these refugees a chance to live, we have a greater chance of entering the kingdom of heaven.”


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