Dozens of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their descendants have journeyed to Portugal to honor Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a relatively obscure diplomat who is credited with rescuing 30,000 Jews from the Nazis.
Mendes was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, when the Nazis invaded and personally provided precious escape visas to Jews, allowing them to avoid death camps, according to the New York Times.
“I hadn’t cried in years, but when I found out, I just couldn’t stop,” Lee Sterling, a California man whose family escaped the Holocaust thanks to Mendes, told the Times.
“Without his help … I wouldn’t be here. It’s as simple, sad and lucky as that,” Yara Nagel, a translator who was the first member of her Nagelschmidt family to be born in Brazil, told the paper. She came from São Paulo, she said, because “I wanted to retrieve my past.”
He did so at great personal peril, since Portugal was a fascist nation, although officially neutral in World War II. He was eventually summoned back to Lisbon, tried for disobedience. He wound up dying in poverty in 1954.
His status as one of the most important protectors of wartime-era Jews was confirmed by Yehuda Bauer, a Holocaust historian at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the Times said.
Despite his vaunted status as a ‘Righteous Gentile,’ Mendes has received scant notoriety in his homeland.
There is no public recognition of his heroism and his family home in the Cabanas de Viriato has fallen into severe disrepair.
A foundation set up in Mendes’s name seeks to restore the home and create a museum of tolerance.