Helped Thousands of Jews Escape Nazis : Family’s Long Quest Ends Historical Exile for Hero
Retired postal worker Sebastian Mendes of Saugus received a telephone call recently that signaled the fulfillment of an aching goal that has possessed him and his brothers and sisters most of their lives.
Theirs was a quest for honor that spanned four decades and followed the children of a Portuguese diplomat as they dispersed throughout the world after World War II. Today, five are dead; the remaining nine are growing gray with age.
They have waited and worked a lifetime for what they sought: the vindication of their father’s slandered name.
The call last month brought word from a congressman’s office in Washington that they had got it. The Portuguese government had agreed--after 46 years--to repudiate its condemnation of their father as an insubordinate bureaucrat and, instead, to honor him as a hero of the Holocaust.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches was the Portuguese consul to Bordeaux who defied his own country’s orders in 1940 and granted passage out of France to thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Some historians have compared his efforts to those of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
De Sousa Mendes paid dearly for his insubordination. Thrown out of the foreign service in disgrace, he died a pauper while the dictator he had disobeyed let others take credit for his good deeds.
Although the rest of the world eventually acknowledged De Sousa Mendes as the proper hero, the government of Portugal never formally erased the taint from his name. But that soon will change, thanks in part to the intercession of several members of Congress.
To celebrate their success, Sebastian Mendes and as many as three of his brothers will gather Oct. 20 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in West Los Angeles in a ceremony that will bring together some of the growing circle of friends who helped them.
Four in California
The Mendes brothers expected to attend were among several of the diplomat’s children who, dispossessed in their homeland, scattered to Belgium, Canada and the United States. Four settled in California, raised families, worked at careers, mourned the death of brothers and sisters and finally came to retirement age.
They never forgot.
At first they had used whatever small and ineffective devices they could muster from halfway around the world to rattle Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s regime, usually by asking local newspapers to print their story. This accomplished little.
“As long as Salazar was in power, nothing could be done,” said the 10th of those children, Sebastian Mendes, 62.
He and his brother Carlos, 64, of Los Angeles had done nothing to ingratiate themselves with that regime. Both were Americans, having been born in Berkeley during their father’s tour as consul there. In 1943, they abandoned neutral Portugal to join the American Army for the European invasion.
After the war, Sebastian Mendes said, he traveled to Portugal briefly for a last visit with his parents, then ventured to America, where he discovered that his accounts of his father, steeped in European intrigue and retribution, found a no more receptive audience than did his thick accent.
In the 1950s, Sebastian Mendes wrote his father’s story in a book, “How a Portuguese Hero Saved Thousands of Jews During World War II.”
The book told a story that, although not widely known, has since been confirmed by historians of the Holocaust and Portuguese diplomatic papers.
It begins in Bordeaux in June, 1940, when frantic Jews and other refugees were streaming to the south of occupied France away from the Nazis. Their goal was Lisbon. As the Portuguese consul, De Sousa Mendes found thousands of people seeking visas to cross Franco’s Spain on the escape route across the Pyrenees.
Requests for visas were supposed to be cleared by wire through the Portuguese national police, the PIDE. But, according to a later foreign ministry investigation, applicants “waited in vain” for clearance “unless they had to do with individuals of ‘pure race’ or blue blood . . . in which case the permits came quickly.”
Order From the Dictator
Dictator Salazar had decided to stop issuing visas to Jews, according to the 1976 report of the foreign ministry.
Faced with this moral crisis, De Sousa Mendes chose conscience over obedience. He began issuing visas on demand to all refugees.
In his book “The Redemption of the Unwanted,” historian Abram L. Sachar described the ordeal this led to: “Both the streets around the consul’s headquarters and around his home were overflowing with families who clamored for exit visas. De Sousa Mendes took as many into his home as could be accommodated until all rooms, staircases, floors and the roof and basement could hold no more.
“There De Sousa Mendes, his wife and children . . . all helped to prepare the scores of visas which De Sousa Mendes stamped hour by hour through three days until exhaustion compelled him to pause for rest.”
Historian Yehuda Bauer called the marathon of visa writing “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
Total Is Unknown
Although the number of refugees who received visas from De Sousa Mendes during the three-day period cannot be documented, estimates run as high as 30,000, at least 10,000 of them Jewish.
It was over in three days. As quickly as possible, the foreign ministry sent a replacement to dispatch De Sousa Mendes home. There he was stripped of his diplomatic title, forced into retirement without compensation and barred from practicing his profession of law. He slipped gradually into poverty.
Sebastian Mendes, who was then just 20, remembers that refugees would come to the Mendes house in Cabanas de Viriato in rural Portugal and “applaud my parents in the street.”
De Sousa Mendes never renounced his decision, not even in the face of disgrace and poverty. Upon his death in 1954, he was forgotten in his homeland, but not by his children.
Their first real glimmer of hope was not to come until 1967, and then from Israel rather than Portugal or the United States.
On List of Righteous
Receiving testimony from Jews who escaped through his help, Yad Vashem, the Israeli Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority, placed Mendes among the Righteous Gentiles “who sacrificed their personal security to save the lives of the innocent.”
Despite that recognition, the Mendes family found no reception in Portugal, where the Salazar regime was growing ever more repressive. Salazar died in 1970. His regime hung on until the revolution of 1974.
Elisa Joana, one of the Mendes children who remained in Portugal, pressed the new democratic government to reexamine her father’s story.
In June, 1976, an officer of the foreign ministry turned in a meticulously documented report concluding that De Sousa Mendes had been illegally punished for an act of insubordination that had ultimately brought recognition to his country.
The author reported that, after the praise had begun to come forth, Salazar still rejected his 1945 appeal for reinstatement and allowed loyal diplomats to take credit for the shepherding of refugees.
The report spoke of the “profound disillusionment” that the Mendes family suffered and recommended that the government immediately consider the posthumous reinstatement of De Sousa Mendes and the “reparation of damages, material and moral, which were unjustly caused by the ministry for foreign affairs.”
Today there are conflicting opinions about why those recommendations were not followed. De Sousa Mendes’ sons believe that Salazar holdouts in the ministry were able to bury the report.
Luis de Sousa, press counselor at the Portuguese Embassy in Washington, conceded that the case has been “gathering dust,” but denied that this was through any ill intent.
“We felt that a man who risked his job to save people from the Nazis is worthy of great esteem and admiration,” Luis de Sousa said.
The resistance finally began to break last year. Elisa Joana Mendes got the story into the Capital, a Lisbon newspaper. Several American newspapers picked up the story. Then the American Congress stepped in.
Another of Sebastian’s brothers, 55-year-old Oakland draftsman John Abranches, was introduced to Rep. Pete Stark (D-Alameda), who read a statement of praise for De Sousa Mendes into the Congressional Record.
A Matter of Pride
This spring the story came to the attention of Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Fresno), who said it touched his pride as the first Portuguese-American elected to Congress.
“The Portuguese people are compassionate people,” Coelho said. “Here’s a man who saved 30,000 lives. It is silly for the Portuguese government to ignore something like this.”
Coelho and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) pushed a resolution of praise for De Sousa Mendes through Congress this summer. And in August, they sent a letter, signed by 70 congressmen, to Portuguese President Mario Soares, urging him to honor the diplomat.
The case came to a rapid conclusion last month. On an official visit to the United States, Portuguese Prime Minister Anibal Antonio Cavaco Silva and Foreign Minister Pedro Pires de Mirando sought Coelho out for discussions on other topics. Coelho said he told them he had only one item on his mind--the De Sousa Mendes case.
Several days later, Coelho was told President Soares had promised to give De Sousa Mendes an award.
Meaning of Decision
What award it will be and when it will be given have not yet been decided, said a Portuguese Embassy official.
Whatever the medal, the meaning is clear. After 46 years, De Sousa Mendes will finally be a hero in his own land.
Recently, in his Saugus town house, surrounded by Dali-like paintings, thick books and other objets d’ arts that subtly recalled the postal clerk’s background as a European intellectual, white-haired Sebastian Mendes mused on the end of his quest. His expressive hands said more than his terse, accented English.
“It’s like it’s finally coming to an end and it’s all been good news,” he said. “Now we’re waiting to know when we will go there to accept it.”
He broke momentarily into tears when told that his name had appeared in a short 1943 article in The Times reporting on his leaving Portugal to join the American Army. It was one more scrap of evidence that Mendes is a name of honor.