Aristides De Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France in 1940. In defiance of then Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, he issued approximately 30 000 forbidden visas to refugees fleeing Hitler and the Nazi terror.
Pictured: Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre’s educators Rene Pozniak and Arlene Sher, meeting with the Portuguese president at the palace in Lisbon.
Among those visas issued were 10 000 to Jews who had been expressly excluded from receiving them. They transited through Spain to neutral Portugal and ultimately to other places of freedom, where they survived the war.
On June 25 this year, 46 of us flew to Bordeaux to honour this special man and retrace the steps taken by the refugees. Among the group were members of the De Sousa Mendes family, original visa recipients and their descendants and a handful of Holocaust educators.
Original testimonies were read by family members along the route. We visited the original consulate in Bordeaux and the journey took us to Bayonne, Biarritz, Hendaye, Salamanca, Viseu, Caldas Da Rainha, Coimbra and finally Lisbon. We were hosted by the mayors of these towns and even welcomed at the palace in Lisbon by the current president, Marcelo Rebelo De Sousa.
The Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, referring to De Sousa Mendes, said: “This is the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
For this great act of defiance, De Sousa Mendes was stripped of his diplomatic position and could not earn a living to support his wife and 15 children. The only help he received was from the Judaic Association of Lisbon, which fed the family in its soup kitchen and paid their medical bills.
The children could not go to university or get meaningful jobs and eventually scattered all over the world. The ancestral home was sold and De Sousa Mendes died a pauper in 1954. He asked his children to restore his name and the honour of the family.
In 1966, Yad Vashem posthumously recognised him as a Righteous Among the Nations. In 1986, the US Congress honoured his heroic act.
When Mario Soares became president of Portugal, he apologised to the De Sousa Mendes family and De Sousa Mendes was posthumously promoted to the rank of ambassador. His face now appears on postage stamps in many countries and there are streets named after him.
The challenge to educators of the Holocaust is to try and make this dark period in Jewish history resonate with the youth here in South Africa 75 years after the fact. At the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, this story will be an invaluable tool that we will use to address issues of Jewish identity, human rights, xenophobia and the current refugee dilemma around the world.
What will be stressed is that one person can make an unquantifiable impact on the plight of the targeted, marginalised people of the world.
Rene Pozniak is an educator at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.