A Portuguese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust has been recognized by the government of Portugal and a monument will be built for him in the National Pantheon.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who was consul in Bordeaux, France, at the beginning of World War II, when it was flooded with Jewish refugees, granted between 10,000-30,000 visas allowing refugees safe haven in Portugal.
The Portuguese regime at the time, led by far-right dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, opposed such measures, however, and Sousa Mendes saw his career destroyed and died in poverty.
According to the BBC, in 1940 Sousa Mendes became friends with a Belgian rabbi, named Chaim Kruger, who was an unofficial leader of the refugee community.
Seeing the Jews desperate to flee the Nazis, Sousa Mendes eventually had a nervous breakdown and took to his bed for several days.
Mordecai Paldiel, who was head of the Righteous Among the Nations department at Israel’s Yad Vashem national Holocaust memorial, told the BBC, “No one really knows what went through his mind in those two or three days.”
“Later on, in Lisbon, Sousa Mendes told a rabbi this: ‘If so many Jews can suffer because of one Catholic, it’s all right for one Catholic to suffer for many Jews.’ He was talking about Hitler, of course,” recalled Paldiel.
After days in crisis, Sousa Mendes burst out of his room and shouted, “From now on I’m giving everyone visas. There will be no more nationalities, races, or religions.”
Henri Dyner, who was a child refugee from Belgium, said, “My mother recalls that he disappeared for a couple of days, and when he came out, his hair had gone grey. My mother actually began to work for Sousa Mendes those days, helping with this kind of production line of visas all down a long table. Sousa Mendes saved our lives.”
Despite orders to stop issuing the visas from his superiors, the consul continued to provide them until he was forced to report to Lisbon, where he was eventually expelled from the diplomatic corps.
“Sousa Mendes was mistreated by Salazar,” Dyner said. “He died in misery as a pauper and his children emigrated to try to find a future somewhere else.”
Dyner believes Sousa Mendes’ memory should serve as an inspiration, saying, “The way things are in the world today, we need more people prepared to stand up for what is right and take a stand.”