08 June, 2011

A Magnis Maxima

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was Portugal’s consul-general in Bordeaux. The capitulation of France in June 1940 prompted tens of thousands of refugees, including thousands of Jews, to flee southward from the northern part, hoping to leave France by crossing its southern border into Spain, from there on to Portugal, and finally sailing for America.

Until May 10, 1940 entrance visas to, or transit permits through Portugal could be obtained at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux. On that date, when Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, the Government of Portugal prohibited further crossings by refugees, especially Jewish refugees. The meaning was that the last avenue of hope was now blocked. Some 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, congregated at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux and applied pressure to obtain the piece of paper that would extricate them from France.

Sousa Mendes, a devout and good-hearted Christian, seeing the terrible plight of the refugees, decided to disobey his government’s explicit instruction. "I will not condone murder, therefore I disobey and continue to disobey Lisbon". He received a delegation of refugees at the consulate and promised transit visas to every single one in need. He even added that those who could not pay the visa fees would receive the documents free of charge.

He then set up an improvised office in the consulate and, with the help of two of his sons and several Jews who were waiting nearby, began to issue entrance permits. They made whatever changes were necessary to the usual procedure: the consul signing with just his surname, not registering the visas or collecting fees, and stamping visas on ordinary pieces of paper. Sousa Mendes toiled for three days and three nights, allowing himself not a moment’s rest and collapsing in exhaustion once the job was done. Between 15 and 22 June 1940 Sousa Mendes issued a total of 1,575 visas.

A delegate of the House of Habsburg, after having to wait his turn in the seemingly endless line, left with 19 visas for the Imperial Family and Crown Prince, Otto, later returned in person to obtain an additional stack of visas for Austrian refugees.

Rumors about Sousa Mendes’ actions reached Lisbon, which summarily ordered him to return to his homeland at once. Two men were sent to escort him back to Portugal. On the way, still in France, they passed the Portuguese consulate in Bayonne. Sousa Mendes saw a crowd of hundreds of people at the consulate’s doors. It reminded him of the sight at his consulate in Bordeaux. Although he had been recalled, Sousa Mendes entered the consulate and, ignoring the objections of the local consul, ordered him to issue visas to all applicants at once. He stamped the visas personally, adding in handwriting, “The Government of Portugal asks the Government of Spain kindly to allow the holder of this document to cross Spain freely. The holder of this document is a refugee from the conflict in Europe and is a guest of Portugal.” 

Back in Lisbon, Sousa Mendes was brought before a disciplinary panel and dismissed from his position in the Foreign Ministry. He died penniless in 1954. 

When asked to explain his actions, he said: "I would rather stand with God against man, than with man against God."