October 18, 1966 – Aristides de Sousa Mendes Recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” for Helping to Save Jews from the Holocaust

Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. In 1963, the Center began a worldwide project to pay tribute to the “Righteous Among the Nations,” or gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

In 1966, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was among the earliest to be so named.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was born in Portugal in 1885, studied law, and began a career as a consular officer. In 1938 he was assigned to the post of Consul-General of Bordeaux, France, with jurisdiction over the whole of the southwest of France.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes in his 20s or 30s

As Hitler’s occupation swept across Europe, neutral Portugal became one of the Continent’s last escape routes. Refugees hoped to exit France via the southern border into Spain and Portugal, and from there sail overseas. The Portuguese dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, permitted holders of visas for overseas to transit through Portugal, but closed the borders to refugees without visas.

As Avraham Milgram reports in the Shoah Resource Center document: “Portugal, the Consuls, and the Jewish Refugees, 1938-1941”:

In 1938, ministers, the heads of their offices, the heads of departments, and especially Oliveira Salazar, became aware of the way the Nazis were solving ‘the Jewish question.’”

But Portugal was not without its own anti-semites, and plus it was in the dangerous position of trying to maintain neutrality.

In November, 1939, the Portuguese government sent instructions to all Portuguese consuls throughout Europe delineating the categories of war refugees whom the state considered to be “inconvenient or dangerous.” The dispatch allowed consuls to keep on granting Portuguese transit visas, but in the case of certain categories including “Jews expelled from their countries,” the consuls needed to ask permission in advance from the Foreign Ministry head office in Lisbon.

Moreover, fearing that Jews might stay in Portugal, the Portuguese government began to create difficulties for Jews in France to come to Portugal, even for those holding visas to other countries. Milgram reports that settling in Portugal was forbidden to Jews; however, they were allowed entry as tourists for thirty days. But they had to have documents not only for entering the country but proving they were leaving it as well. Thus, as Milgram details the obstacles, besides the money to buy sea passage, it was first necessary to get an exit visa from Vichy French territory, an entry visa to an overseas country or countries, usually on the American continent, and a Portuguese visa, so that finally a transit visa through Spain could be received.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes, 1940

Some 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, were desperately trying to obtain a Portuguese visa. Sousa Mendes, a devout Catholic, was determined to help the refugees despite his government’s orders.

Milgram provides the following data:

According to the lists of visas issued in the Bordeaux consulate, Sousa Mendes granted 2,862 visas between January 1 and June 22, 1940. The majority, that is, 1,575 visas, were issued between June 11 and 22, in the last days of his consular career there.”

A rumor about Sousa Mendes’s actions reached Lisbon, which summarily ordered him to return to his homeland at once. But he may have also issued visas in the subposts at which he stopped on his way back to Portugal.

Milgram notes:

…the discrepancy between the reality and the myth of the number of visas granted by Sousa Mendes is great. Nevertheless, we must conclude that the majority of Jews who, in the summer of 1940, succeeded in crossing the Pyrenees and Spain to the Portuguese border, did so thanks to Sousa Mendes.”

Yad Vashem observes that the Portuguese Government dismissed Sousa Mendes from his position in the Foreign Ministry and left him destitute and unable to support his large family. He died penniless in 1954; not until 1988, thanks to external pressure and his children’s efforts, did his government grant him total rehabilitation.

Life saving visa issued by Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes on June 19, 1940, bearing the signature of his secretary José Seabra.