Aristides de Sousa Mendes: the man who defied Nazism and saved thousands of lives

One of the duties of the modern society is to record the events of the past, cherishing history and all its lessons, learning from them. One way of doing that is also by paying tribute to all the outstanding characters that played a role in our past, distinguishing themselves for acts of bravery and for supporting social values and human rights.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes is one of those people who should always be remembered as a tenacious protector of human rights, as a brave citizen who did not bend to power, bigotry and violence.

Aristides was a Catholic gentleman of aristocratic origins, born in Cabanas de Viriato in July 1885. He worked as Portuguese consul in Antwerp (between 1929 and 1938) and then in Bordeaux. During his last period as a consul, he managed to save thousands of people from the Nazi grip by issuing 30.000 visas, enabling people to leave France right before the German occupation and the beginning of the holocaust. In fact, right when Charles de Gaulle was leaving France, flying to the UK, Aristides de Sousa was producing the visas and signing travel documents, saving twelve thousand Jews, the last Crown Prince of Austria, Otto von Habsburg, the Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery and the entire Belgian cabinet. His actions made possible, for the refugees, to reach Portugal, and escape to safer countries, bypassing the “Circular 14” set up by the Portuguese dictator Salazar, who was trying to support Hitler’s discrimination towards Jewish people by preventing them from getting a passage to Portugal.

Once Aristides’ actions were discovered, he lost his diplomatic status, his pension and his right to practice law. He was declared “a disgraced non-person” and people were ordered not to help him, and to take the distance from his family. The consul decided with no hesitation to lose his career and to risk his family’s support and stability to help thousands of people, foreseeing the disgraceful events that would have taken place in the following years. He died in 1954 and it was only years after that that his life and credibility got restored: in 1966 he was made one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” (a distinction given by Israel to those who assisted Jews during the war), and in 1988 the Portuguese parliament finally dismissed all charges, restoring his diplomatic status and promoting him to ambassador.

The heroism and bravery demonstrated by Aristides de Sousa Mendes are nowadays not recognized as much as those performed by Oscar Schindler. Nonetheless, there are people and projects who aim at reaffirming his image and story: an online group has born through the relatives of the WWII survivors. They share personal stories and experiences about how they, or their parents and grandparents, escaped from Europe thanks to Aristides. The house itself of the noble man will be restored and transformed in a museum and memorial, to remember his righteous decision, his ideals and the lives saved by him.

Brussels will participate in the commemoration process and will contribute to spread and praise the episode on November the 30th. On that date, the bookstore Filigranes will host the presentation of two books, dedicated to Sousa Mendes. The first one, “Aristides de Sousa Mendes – memórias de um neto” has been written by António de Sousa Mendes, the grandchild of the Portuguese consul, while the second one “Le Consul de Bordeaux” is by João Corrêa. Join the event and discover more about the life of this simple man who, with a resolute and genuine act of bravery, contributed to fight the oppressive Nazi regime and its violent and twisted vision of the world.