Eighty years after he helped save thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution by defying the orders of his own Portuguese government, a diplomat who provided them with visas to leave Nazi-occupied France will be honored in the national Pantheon in Lisbon.
The Portuguese Parliament voted last week to put a cenotaph in the Pantheon dedicated to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who during his lifetime suffered severe reprisals from the Portuguese authorities for his actions.
Mr. Sousa Mendes, Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux when Germany invaded France in 1940, provided tens of thousands of people with Portuguese visas to escape Nazi persecution, according to the Sousa Mendes Foundation, which is run by descendants of the visa recipients. He was subsequently dismissed from his post, after a complaint about how he breached consulate rules while working overtime to save Jews and others fleeing the Nazis.
Mr. Sousa Mendes’s personal rescue mission went against instructions sent to diplomats by Portugal’s government, which was neutral in the war but Fascist. When the government realized the scale of his disobedience, Mr. Sousa Mendes was recalled to Lisbon, where he was tried and dismissed from the diplomatic service. Stripped of his pension rights, he died in poverty in 1954. His family home was repossessed by creditors after his death.
Mr. Sousa Mendes has long been considered a hero by Holocaust survivors, but he remained ignored by his own country until the 1980s, when Portugal rehabilitated his name and its Parliament posthumously promoted him to the rank of ambassador. In Israel, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial honored him as “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1966.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis also paid homage to Mr. Sousa Mendes, since his example helped turn June 17 into “The Day of Conscience.”
“May every Christian,” the pope said, “give an example of the consistency of an upright conscience enlightened by the Word of God.”
Olivia Mattis, the president of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, welcomed the vote in Portugal and recognition by the pope, particularly since other events to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Mr. Sousa Mendes’s action were canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the planned dedication of a square in Jerusalem.
Gérald Mendes, a grandson of Mr. Sousa Mendes who attended the June 9 parliamentary vote in Lisbon, said by phone that the recognition was “an important moment for his memory and for Portugal.”
“I hope this will not close fully the chapter of his history, because we should always remember and draw lessons from what happened 80 years ago, especially when we are confronted with terrible situations like those of the refugees today,” he added.
So far, 3,907 of the recipients of the visas issued by Mr. Sousa Mendes have been identified publicly. About half were Jews. In 2013, some of their descendants undertook an emotional pilgrimage to the small town in central Portugal where Mr. Sousa Mendes was born and is buried in a family crypt, and participants held a remembrance ceremony at the site.
Mr. Sousa Mendes started ignoring Lisbon’s orders before Germany’s invasion of France. Many of his visas, however, were issued in the frantic month of June 1940, when the Germans were tightening their grip on the country.
Mr. Sousa Mendes signed the visas himself, working late into the night, which eventually prompted a complaint about how the consulate was operating. The Portuguese government, which had been looking into his activities, then scrambled to bring home their rebel consul from Bordeaux.
Mr. Sousa Mendes returned to Lisbon in early July, after the Portuguese instructed the Spanish border police to turn back holders of the visas he issued. During the disciplinary proceedings that were then opened against him in Lisbon, Mr. Sousa Mendes responded that “my aim was first and foremost humanitarian.”
Last week’s unanimous vote in Parliament stemmed from an initiative by an independent lawmaker, Joacine Katar Moreira, who was born in Guinea-Bissau, one of Portugal’s former African colonies.
She called Mr. Sousa Mendes “a heroic figure” who “prioritized ethical awareness over the dictates of the law of a Fascist state.”
Mr. Mendes, the diplomat’s grandson, said he was happy that the vote in Parliament was started by “an independent lawmaker and not by one of the big traditional parties, and even more so by this particular lady now that there is so much debate over racism in the world.”
Mr. Mendes lives in France but travels regularly to Portugal, which he described as “a country that makes me now proud because of its tolerance, even if it has not been completely immune recently to the resurgence of the far right in Europe.”
No date has been scheduled yet for the inauguration of the cenotaph, Mr. Mendes said. The family had decided that Mr. Sousa Mendes’s remains should remain in the family crypt, next to his wife and “in the village that he really loved.” The next goal, Mr. Mendes said, was to open a museum in his grandfather’s hometown, hopefully in 2021.
— to www.nytimes.com