In 2014, I wrote about Portuguese consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes who, during WW2, issued visas to save the lives of over 30,000 people (including 10,000 Jews) fleeing the Nazis. His faith and selfless act meant he went against his government, was subsequently demoted, ostracised and ended up penniless in his family mansion Casa do Passal in Cabanas de Viriato, near Viseu.
Wanting to follow up on my article, I had the pleasure of talking again to Aristides’ grandson, António Moncada Sousa Mendes who, in 2000, along with his cousin Álvaro, created the Aristides de Sousa Mendes Foundation. After Aristides’ death, the bank repossessed his house and it fell into ruin until the Foundation reacquired it in 2001.
In America, in 2010, Aristides’ descendants created the Sousa Mendes Foundation which aims to identify all the visa recipients. Names already collected include aristocracy, artists, journalists, political figures, religious leaders, actors and academics. Both foundations are raising funds for Casa do Passal to be made into a museum, dedicated to Aristides and the Holocaust, which was scheduled to open in 2018.
The restoration has been delayed but is due to recommence in July.
António is one of 39 grandchildren and was five when his grandfather died, but he feels a special affinity with him not only because Aristides’ now infamous signature is on his birth certificate, as a witness, but because his father, uncles and aunts “all carry within themselves the sentiment that the injustice committed against their parents had to be repaired”. This sentiment is so strong that it has been “transmitted to their own children as part of the DNA of the family”. António has dedicated much of his life to promoting his grandfather’s memory by meeting politicians, visa recipients and teaching Aristides’ story in schools. In 2017, he wrote a book entitled Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Memories of a Grandson.
Aristides and his wife Angelina had 14 children, born across the world where Aristides was posted. Portugal, Zanzibar, Brazil, America, Spain, and Belgium! The Sultan of Zanzibar was António’s father’s godfather! Everywhere, the family were held in high esteem, known for helping anyone in need and for supporting their community. Even when they lived abroad, their kitchen, in Casa do Passal, was opened to feed the poor. They had a good life, until Aristides made a life-changing decision when he was Consulate-General in Bordeaux.
In November 1939, Portugal’s prime minister António Salazar issued a confidential order, known as ‘Circular 14’, ordering Portuguese consulates to “refuse visas to foreigners of undefined, contested or disputed nationality, stateless persons and Jews expelled from the countries of their nationality or from which they came”.
Aristides believed Salazar’s order to be inhuman and contested it, but he was ignored. When he took into his home refugee Rabbi Chaim Kruger, he was made aware of the dangerous situation Jews were facing and he realised that he would have to go against his government’s orders to help the increasing number of people queuing outside the consulate, wanting visas to escape through Spain into neutral Portugal and onto America.
For three days, Aristides agonised over what to do, before beginning on June 17, 1940 to relentlessly issue visas to everyone, regardless of their nationality, race or religion, therefore directly contravening Circular 14. He said he would “rather stand with God against man than with man against God”, words which made him a holocaust hero.
He received orders to stop from his Lisbon superiors, to which he replied: “If there is to be disobedience, I prefer it to be to an order from man than to an order from God”.
Summonsed back to Lisbon by Salazar, Aristides continued to issue visas along the way to anyone who needed them. At the border of Irun/Hendaye, he personally raised the crossing to lead through a procession of refugees whose visas had been rejected.
Arriving in Lisbon on July 8, 1940, Aristides, who had been loyal for 32 years, was demoted and forced into retirement, although he never did receive his pension.
Viewed as a traitor, unable to work and without an income, he relied on help from his family and visa recipients who were sheltering in his home, Casa do Passal. Often the family ate in Lisbon’s Jewish community canteen where Aristides stated that “they too had become refugees”.
Aristides spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name, claiming to be unfairly punished by his government at a time when Salazar was reaping praise for Portugal’s role in helping war refugees. As the family became ostracised, the Sousa Mendes children were unable to study or work in Portugal and, by 1949, all had emigrated.
Angelina died in 1948 and Aristides married his French lover, Andrée Cibial, with whom he had previously had a daughter. They lived in Casa do Passal but with no income, were forced to sell their belongings and the house fell into degradation.
On April 3, 1954, in the Franciscan Hospital in Lisbon, Aristides died a pauper. He was buried in a Franciscan habit and no-one from his family was present.
The Sousa Mendes family descend from noble families of the Kingdom of Portugal who throughout history have fought for justice and righteousness. Aristides’ children vowed to clear his name, but it was only after Joana, nicknamed ‘the stubborn one’, wrote to Jewish leaders and visa recipients that recognition began, when in 1961 the Israeli Prime Minister planted 20 trees in Aristides’ honour.
In 1966, Yad Vashem recognised Aristides as Righteous Among the Nations and, in 1987, he was awarded the Order of Liberty Medal, one of Portugal’s highest honours. In 1988, he was officially pardoned by President Mário Soares and promoted posthumously to Ambassador. In 1995, he was given the Military Order of Christ and is now regularly honoured worldwide.
I recently read António’s book which tells the story of a “complex man, profoundly righteous and religious, devoted to family and country that was forced to make a terrible choice between his conscience and his professional duty, knowing that the consequences for him would be relentless”. They were, but Aristides never regretted his decision, saying ”I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love”.
He should never be forgotten, and I look forward to one day visiting his beautifully restored home.
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.
Photos courtesy of António Moncada Sousa Mendes