Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches, a Portuguese consul stationed in Bordeaux, France in 1940.
Sousa Mendes didn't just save my mother's life, he saved 30,000 people, over the period of a few days. This heroic feat has been described as "the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust."
At that time, Portugal was pro-Hitler and under the dictatorial rule of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Salazar issued a directive – the infamous “Circular 14″ – to all its diplomats to deny safe haven to refugees, including explicitly Jews, Russians, and stateless persons who could not freely return to their countries of origin.
Sousa Mendes’s act of heroism consisted in choosing to defy these inhumane orders and following his conscience instead. "I would rather stand with God against Man than with Man against God," he declared. And he and the subordinates under his command issued 30,000 visas allowing 30,000 refugees to leave soon to be Nazi occupied France.
And so, instead of perishing in a concentration camp, my mother, grand-mother and great-uncle were able to leave France just as the Nazis entered Paris. They escaped via Portugal to the United States, and here I am.
For his act of defiance, Sousa Mendes was severely punished by Salazar, stripped of his diplomatic position and forbidden from earning a living. His children were themselves blacklisted and prevented from attending university or finding meaningful work. The family’s ancestral home was repossessed by the bank.
Sousa Mendes died in 1954 in poverty and disgrace. Even until this bitter end, he stood by his decision to save refugee lives, stating, "I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love."
The foundation that bears his name is dedicated to sharing this history and broadcasting it far and wide, because it stands as a moral example to act against intolerance, racism and genocide today.
Furthermore, with widespread recognition, the living survivors and descendants of those saved by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, many thousands of them unaware of the name of the person who helped them reach safety, may learn the true story behind their survival.
We just learned.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches, "Righteous Among the Nations," I will remember you.