Thursday, February 21, 2008

"I'd Rather Be With God Against Man Than With Man Against God.."

I'd rather be with God against man than with man against God.."
- Aristades De Sousa Mendes

The miracle of courage is an amazing thing when it happens on the battlefield..but some times it is even more pronounced when it amounts to doing the right thing when doing the right thing is difficult and costly and simply following the herd is easy.

Arisitades De Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, France, when the Nazis invaded in 1940.By then, few people had any illusions left about Hitler's plans for the Jews unless they simply preferred not to know.

Thousands of refugees fled to the south of France in the wake of the Nazi invasion, desperate for a haven. For most of them, particularly Jews, the only possible escape was to make it to the Portuguese port of Lisbon or one of the Spanish ports, which meant getting a Portuguese transit visa to leave France and enter Spain.

De Sousa Mendes was specifically instructed by his government not to issue any transit visas, especially to Jews. Instead, De Sousa Mendes defied his own government's instructions and he and a handful of his staff worked around the clock to issue visas to an estimated 10,000 Jews and 20,000 other people fleeing the Nazis.

The following is from Yad Vashem's website:

Rabbi Haim Kruger, one of the refugees, told Mendes: “If we should be trapped here, I don’t know what will happen to us.” The rabbi rejected Mendes’ initial offer to issue visas only to the rabbi and his family, insisting that visas also be issued to the thousands of Jews stranded on the streets of the city. After further reflection, Mendes reversed himself and decided to grant visas to all persons requesting it. “I sat with him a full day without food and sleep and helped him stamp thousands of passports with Portuguese visas,” Rabbi Kruger relates. To his staff, Mendes explained: “My government has denied all applications for visas to any refugees. But I cannot allow these people to die. Many are Jews and our constitution says that the religion, or politics, of a foreigner shall not be used to deny him refuge in Portugal. I have decided to follow this principle. I am going to issue a visa to anyone who asks for it – regardless of whether or not he can pay... Even if I am dismissed, I can only act as a Christian, as my conscience tells me.”

It was an unseemly sight as people of all ages, including pregnant women and sick persons, waited in line to have their passports stamped with the Portuguese visa. The reaction of the Portuguese government was not long in waiting. Two emissaries were dispatched to accompany home the insubordinate diplomat. On their way to the Spanish border, the entourage stopped at the Portuguese consulate in Bayonne. Here too, Mendes, still the official representative of his country for this region, issued visas to fleeing Jewish refugees, again in violation of instructions from Lisbon.

He saved these people's lives.

For this heroic act, Aristades De Sousa Mendes was recalled to Lisbon, fired from Portugal's diplomatic service, dishonored and denied a pension by Portugal's dictator Antonio Salazar. He was forced to sell his family estate in Cabanas de Viriato to support his family and spent the rest of his life in poverty and obscurity, dying in 1954.

Aristades De Sousa was named a Righteous Gentile and is honored at Yad Vashem in Israel,the museum dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust

In 1988 Portugal's parliament voted unanimously to make amends and approved a bill that posthumously reinstated him as a diplomat, promoted him to the rank of ambassador and paid compensation to his surviving relatives, who used the money to repurchase the family home.

On February 20th of this year, Portuguese Parliament Speaker Jaime Gama presided over a special ceremony celebrating the official launch of a website honoring the life and work of Aristides de Sousa Mendes. It is part of a museum containing a database of photographs, videos and historic documents.

The website's only in Portuguese at this time but will eventually be translated into several languages, and is co-sponsored by the Portuguese government as well as by foreign and national universities and institutions, including the German Foreign Ministry and several Jewish groups.

Aristades De Souza Mendes became a hero when he was put in circumstances where he simply made the choice to do the right thing, no matter what it cost him.

At a time when there is virtual silence by the UN in the face of genocidal threats of a second Holocaust by one of its members, at a time when the carnage of Darfur continues unabated. his example is a welcome one for these troubled times.Some of us may very well be faced with a similar choice in the not too distant future.

Obrigado, o Senor De Sousa Mendes. E pode Deus abençoe a sua memória.


Soccer Dad said...

Fascinating story. With a last name of Mendes, I wonder though if he might have been descended from a family that was forced to convert.

Anonymous said...

That's a beautiful story and one I did not know. Thank you.

Amigos de Sousa Mendes said...

This year we will commemorate 70 years since 17-June-1940, the Day of Conscience when Sousa Mendes chose to follow his conscience and "save all those people".
He is credited with the single largest rescue effort undertaken by one person during WWII.

Follow the Friends of Sousa Mendes blog,
The blog is mostly in Portuguese, but there are English summaries and a translation button which works quite well.

Freedom Fighter said...

Thanks so much for sharing this.

I will make it a point to do a tribute on June 17th to an incredibly brave and heroic man.