The ‘Portuguese Schindler’ and Me
Aristides Sousa Mendes is a national hero today in Portugal for bravely saving Jews fleeing the Nazis. It wasn’t always that way.
When Aristides Sousa Mendes was a child, his name forced his family to leave Portugal for Africa. Today, his name is famous, and his grandfather and namesake, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, is a national hero, his story taught in every Portuguese school.
I met Aristides in Lisbon in November, while traveling in the Portuguese capitol to report my story about Sephardic identity that Forward published last week. While I was there, I thought it would be worthwhile to meet Aristides — another man concerned with his roots.
Aristides and his wife Teresa met me in the lobby of my hotel. Both have white hair and an aristocratic posture, and speak English well. They pronounce their surname in the vowel-less Portuguese style, so that “Mendes” sounds like “Mensch.”
Aristides realized that there was some sort of cloud over his grandfather when he was just seven or eight years old. “I started understanding that there was some strange thing around him, because my parents and my uncles, when they would meet with each other, they were always regretting something, even crying about something,” he told me. “In our house we were not allowed to speak about our grandfather.”
Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese diplomat stationed in Bordeaux in 1940. Portugal was neutral throughout the Second World War, and Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, wanted to keep it that way. So when Sousa Mendes, an observant Catholic, asked for permission to provide transit visas to the Jews amassing in Bordeaux to pass through Portugal and on to safer continents, Salazar said no. Sousa Mendes provided them anyway.
It’s a story that is familiar today throughout Portugal, a redemptive anecdote that serves to absolve the Portuguese of Holocaust guilt. Before 1978, however, Sousa Mendes’ actions were unknown. It wasn’t that he had been forgotten. Rather, his story had been suppressed.
Salazar ordered Sousa Mendes and his family to leave Bordeaux after he learned that he was defying his order. When Sousa Mendes returned to Lisbon, Salazar proceeded to ruin his life. The diplomat and the dictator grew up in a similar milieu. Salazar was the son of a cop, while Sousa Mendes was the son of a judge. The two overlapped in university. Yet Salazar had no mercy for Sousa Mendes. Sousa Mendes was stripped of his position and officially shunned. It grew dangerous to be associated with him.
“My grandfather became isolated,” Aristides said. “Even the family was afraid to talk to him.” The government forced Sousa Mendes to retire and barred him from getting more work, then often failed to pay the half-pension he had been promised. When he died in 1954, he was broke.
Sousa Mendes’s children most moved away as soon as they could. They wouldn’t have been able to find work in Portugal if they had stayed. Many went to the United States, others to Canada. Aristides’ parents took him to Mozambique and then to Angola, both Portuguese colonies at the time. The regime was less strict there, and his father was able to find employment as an engineer. By 1964, when Aristides returned to Lisbon, some of Salazar’s anger seemed to have faded.
“Salazar never forgot, never forgave,” Aristides told me. “But anyway, we could live here.”
In 1965, an American magazine printed an article that mentioned Sousa Mendes. Aristides said that copies in Portugal were taken off the stands. By the late 1970s, thanks to the efforts of an American-based daughter of Sousa Mendes, the story became known, first in the U.S. and then elsewhere. Sousa Mendes is now recognized at Yad Vashem, and various grandchildren have projects to defend his legacy.
Today, when his name is said in public, everyone turns to look.
“Nowadays everyone knows this name,” Aristides told me when we met in Lisbon. “It was a matter of justice. Our grandfather was ignored… We don’t want any honors for us, but we cannot accept that our grandfather was ignored.”