The moral choice of a diplomat who defied orders

In June 1940, as the German army was sweeping southward in defeated France, Sousa Mendes was faced with an impossible conflict between his conscience and his loyalty to his government.

Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On October 29, dozens of families will gather at a gala event at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in New York, to celebrate their rescue 77 years ago at the hands of a single person, and to commemorate him. Those present will represent only a fraction of the thousands who owe their lives to the humanitarian act of this individual – Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul-general in the southern French city of Bordeaux.
In June 1940, as the German army was sweeping southward in defeated France, Sousa Mendes was faced with an impossible conflict between his conscience and his loyalty to his government. Portugal was then under the rule of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, whose wartime decree “Circular 14” forbade the issuance of transit visas to Jews wishing to escape capture by the advancing Germans. As the person in charge of the whole Bordeaux region, stretching into Bayonne, Sousa Mendes had the power to save thousands of Jews, who had fled to Bordeaux from other regions captured by the Germans and found themselves stranded on the streets of the city waiting for a miracle, but he would need to openly defy his government in order to do so.
Rabbi Chaim Kruger, one of those fleeing Jews, pleaded with Sousa Mendes to issue to his brethren Portuguese transit visas, thus making possible their escape by crossing into Spain and proceeding to Lisbon, Portugal, where they hoped to board boats taking them to safe destinations.
After a few days of agonizing soul searching, Sousa Mendes, the father of then 12 living children, decided to issue transit visas, and he did so by the thousands. When Salazar learned of Sousa Mendes’ flagrant disobedience, he ordered him back to Portugal for disciplinary measures. Even then, before leaving France, he managed to lead a group of refugees to a spot on the Franco-Spanish border where their passage was safer than at other transfer points.
Returning to Portugal, he was stripped of his diplomatic rank, fired, and all benefits accrued from a long diplomatic career annulled. When he died in 1954, he had been reduced to poverty, and was occasionally aided by Jewish welfare organizations. Most of his children left Portugal and took up residence in other countries.
In 1966, based on a handful of testimonies, Yad Vashem posthumously awarded Sousa Mendes the title of Righteous Among the Nations. A year later, the Righteous medal and Certificate of Honor were handed to his daughter, Joana, in a ceremony in the Israeli consulate in New York.
The story does not end there. Several years after I came to Yad Vashem, in 1982, to head the Righteous Among the Nations Department, wondering why none of Sousa Mendes’s children had come to fulfill the obligation of planting a tree, and fearing that by the time someone came for that purpose there would be no further place left for such a tree, I myself planted one in the name of Sousa Mendes at a choice spot on the Avenue of the Righteous. I followed this up with an article in The Jerusalem Post, on December 5, 1986, entitled “The Righteous Diplomat Who Defied Orders.” Then, together with Robert Jacobvitz and some of the Sousa Mendes children, I joined in pleading with the post-Salazar government to reverse and annul the dismissal decision of the Salazar regime, posthumously restore Sousa Mendes to his diplomatic rank and award his children the benefits to which he was entitled. These efforts led the post-Salazar Portuguese government in 1988 to redress this terrible mistake and restore Sousa Mendes’ diplomatic rank.
Here, again, the story does not fully end. In 2010 I met Olivia Mattis, whose father and grandparents were lucky recipients of Sousa Mendes’s visas, and she decided that an effort must be undertaken to locate as many of the thousands of visa recipients as possible. Assembling a voluntary committee for this, she created the Sousa Mendes Foundation. To the surprise of many, nearly 4,000 names were gradually discovered, based on a meticulous research of documents and boat manifests. Several films have also seen the light of day, as well as a musical oratorio, all chronicling the Sousa Mendes story. A forest in his honor already exists near Arad, as well as a street in Tel Aviv.
And I am pleased to announce that the Jerusalem municipality has agreed to have a square named for Sousa Mendes in the near future.
The significance of the Sousa Mendes story is that when faced with a moral choice – to save the lives of strangers but lose his career and future in the process – Sousa Mendes, an ordinary man, a devout Catholic, and a patriot, rose to the challenge of history. He could not deny the pleadings of thousands of totally innocent persons, mostly Jews.
Only a few years away from retirement, he decided that his religious belief in the brotherhood of man left him no choice but to flout his own dictatorial regime’s anti-humanitarian regulation and distribute transit visas to all those asking for it – fully cognizant of the severe punitive consequences facing him for his disobedience.
As he confessed to Rabbi Chaim Kruger, whom he met again in Lisbon, “If so many Jews are permitted to suffer from one evil non-Jew [i.e., Hitler], then one Christian is permitted to suffer for so many Jews. It does not matter to me. I could not have acted otherwise.”
The author, formerly of Yad Vashem, currently teaches at Yeshiva University and Touro College, New York. He is a member and adviser of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, the Jewish Rescuers of Jews Association, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Hidden Children Foundation.