Portuguese Diplomat saved 30,000 souls

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Portuguese Diplomat who saved 30,000 Souls during the Paris invasion of Adolf Hilter.

“Even if I am discharged, I can only act as a Christian, as my conscience tells me.” said 30 years experienced Portuguese Diplomat, before he disobey the orders of his seniors to save 30,000 lives.

How many of them were Jewish? Read till the end to get the answer. No matter even if you are French, Spanish, German, Portuguese or American, you will appreciate this story and will love this dedication as a human.

Image credit: BBC Archives

It was the second week of June 1940. Nazi regime had started to invade France and lower countries in mid-May. Mr Aristides de Sousa Mendes was the Consul General of Portugal to a Port city of Bordeaux, France at the moment. Thousands of people including Jewish were escaping from Nazi forces. Theoretically, Mendes should not be worried too much. The Government of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal has safeguarded its boundaries by being neutral at War. Salazar’s some efficient diplomats like Pedro Teotónio Pereira managed to keep Portugal out of the situation successfully, while secretly allowing allies their facilities to safeguard the future as well.

Nazi was pushing back Southern beyond German Borders by invading Belgium and France while skipping Neutral Switzerland.

Let me accompany you to go a few months back history, before talking about the second week of 1940.

As a part of being neutral, the Salazar administration had secretly issued circular 14 to their diplomats on the 18th of November 1939 by advising them not to issue visas to grant entry to Portugal. However, the Portuguese Diplomat Sousa Mendes had issued one visa to Jewish and Austrian Scholar Professor Arnold Wiznitzer on the 28th of November 1939, just 10 days after Salazar’s order. But he may never expect to issue thousands of visas in near future.

Let’s go again to the moment of truth. When the second week of 1940, Nazi pressure was rising up in France. People left further South to seek help from Neutral Spain and Portugal. But, it is very hard to open Spain gates.

Thousands of people were waiting with their only wealth, wearing clothes in Bordeaux. Their only hope was a Visa from the Portuguese Embassy to cross the border. Some may manage to get help from Sea. But the Powerful Nazi Navy may be waiting for them in the Atlantic.

Consul General Sousa Mendes wrote to Lisbon to ask permission to grant visas on the 13th of June. His request was denied. Consul General was in a battle. His common sense and 30 years old Diplomatic reputation were fighting to avoid him by issuing Visas against his government rule. But his conscience as a devout Christian was fighting back to save lives. Finally, he took the decision that God is superior to Human Government and Humanitarian action is valuable than his 30 reputations as a diplomat.

Image credit: https://bordeus.consuladoportugal.mne.gov.pt/

He was an honoured diplomat. He knew that this action may be resulting in a very serious reaction from Salazar’s administration such as imprisonment, losing his career, reputation or even worse. He knew that there is a great risk if his signature would be dishonoured at Spain Border.

He finally emerged three days later. “I am going to issue a visa to anyone who asks for it,” he announced. “Even if I am discharged, I can only act as a Christian, as my conscience tells me.”  Consul General Sousa Mendes

Smithsonian Magazine Report

He worked continuously for 10 days, day and night. According to the reports, 30,000 people got visas to pass the Spain border. Soon his disobedience was notified to Lisban. Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar talked to him directly on the 22nd of June 1940.

“You are strictly forbidden to grant anyone a visa for entry to Portugal,” he wrote. – His Excellency António de Oliveira Salazar

Smithsonian Magazine Repor

Then the PM dispatched Mr Pedro Teotónio Pereira, the ambassador to Spain, to investigate.

The city of Bordeaux was first bombed by the Germans the night of June 19th when a formation of 12 Heinkel 111, avoiding the local air defences, reached the heart of the city. And Sousa Mendes has done his duty with his maximum. He was exhausted when the 19th of June.

Spain borders were instructed not to accept Sousa’s signature at the initial stage. But, border guards had decided to honour the Consul General’s signature as long as they could control the situation.

He didn’t stop there and he tried to pressure other consulates further south to issue visas for refugees. But, finally, he was called back to Lisbon for the disciplinary procedure over disobedience to the Foreign Office instructions.

Salazar’s administration couldn’t imprison him. But they forced him to leave the service and he never got his promised pension until he die in 1954. He fought back for his rights until his last breath in poverty. Yes. This believable man died as a poor man. The only reason was his stubborn behaviours to save lives. Otherwise, he could die like a royal as he had a decades-long diplomatic reputation that he risked to save some 30,000 unknown souls. 10,000 of them were Jewish.

But history could fight back for his soul. In the 1980s, his activism while in Office was recalled. Slowly his reputation came back to life.

In 2020, Lisbon made the historical vote for Sousa Mendes that he deserve.

The Portuguese Parliament voted last week to put a cenotaph in the Pantheon dedicated to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who during his lifetime suffered severe reprisals from the Portuguese authorities for his actions.

 Raphael Minder – New York Times Reporter

His lifelong sacrifice was recognized by his beloved church.

Pope Francis also paid homage to Mr Sousa Mendes, since his example helped turn June 17 into “The Day of Conscience.”

“May every Christian,” the pope said, “give an example of the consistency of an upright conscience enlightened by the Word of God.”

Raphael Minder – New York Times Reporter

In my personal belief, Not just Jewish people But also French, Portuguese, German and Spanish people will appreciate his courage and service to humanity.

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