Raoul Wallenberg was not the only one who saved Jews and other refugees by issuing them escape visas, a modern historian told 50 people at the Cambridge Organization of Portuguese Americans.
In a speech attended by the consul-generals of Portugal and Israel and by School Committee member Lawrence Weinstein, University of New Hampshire professor Douglas Wheeler told his audience of the heroic exploits of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul-general in Bordeaux, France during World War II.
De Sousa Mendes wrote visas for an estimated 30,000 refugees--about 10,000 of whom were Jewish--so that they could escape the German invasion of France, said Wheeler.
The Portuguese government, headed by dictator Antonio Salazar, had declared itself neutral at the opening of the war, but officials were still closely aligned with the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan, Wheeler said.
Salazar ordered his consulates not to issue visas to refugees unless they had a sponsor in Portugal, and "absolutely no Jews" were to be allowed entry to Portugal, according to Wheeler.
Despite these orders, de Sousa Mendes spent three days in June 1940 writing visas for the thousands of refugees outside the consulate.
"My government has denied all applications for visas. But I cannot allow these people to die," Wheeler said de Sousa Mendes told the crowd.
After three days of writing visas, Wheeler said, de Sousa Mendes collapsed from exhaustion.
De Sousa Mendes Recalled
When the government learned of de Sousa Mendes' insubordination, it recalled him. It also ordered its border officials not to accept visas issued at Bordeaux.
But on his way back to his home-land, de Sousa Mendes and his family saw hundreds of refugees in front of the Portuguese consulate in Bayonne. De Sousa Mendes spent another day writing visas there before returning to Lisbon.
When de Sousa Mendes arrived at home, the government placed him on inactive duty, Wheeler said. He never worked steadily again. His home fell into disrepair, and he died in poverty in 1954.
'Duty of Elementary Humanity'
According to Wheeler, de Sousa Mendes never regretted his actions, despite the consequences. He justified his actions as a "duty of elementary humanity."
Writing in his own defense, de Sousa Mendes said, "I disobeyed government orders because I would rather be with God against man than with man against God."
After his death, de Sousa Mendes was recognized by the government of Israel as a "righteous gentile." In 1988, he became an honorary citizen of Israel, Wheeler said.
But only recently has the Portuguese government recognized de Sousa Mendes' actions, Wheeler said. In 1987, Portuguese President Mario Soares awarded him the Order of Liberty, Portugal's highest civilian medal.
And on March 18, 1988, Wheeler said, the Portuguese government approved reparations for de Sousa Mendes' surviving family, which includes 10 of his 13 children.
"I think," Wheeler concluded, "that justice has prevailed."
Wheeler is currently writing a book on Portugal during World War II.
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