Aristides de Sousa Mendes was neither a superhero endowed with supernatural powers nor a saint capable of working miracles, but rather a man who loved others and who believed in humanity above all else. He was a man who was truly alone during one of the darkest moments in history.
This man was my grandfather, and he was the Consul General of Portugal in Bordeaux when, on June 17th, 1940, the Nazis took possession of France, a country that had been relinquished by its collaborationist government. He knew full well that he was in the position of being able to deliver life-saving visas to thousands of people condemned to die if they fell into Nazi hands. After trying in vain to convince Portugal's dictator António de Oliveira Salazar to allow the granting of visas, my grandfather made the decision to resist the insane prejudices prevalent at that time, and he courageously chose to disobey.
"Starting today I will obey my conscience. As a Christian I do not have the right to let these women and men die," he said.
Sousa Mendes, in his act of disobedience, conducted an heroic operation described by the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer as "perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust." In a handful of days in the spring of 1940, Sousa Mendes saved an estimated 30,000 lives.
Most of the survivors never knew that someone had stood up to protect them.
The ripple effect is amazing: these refugees and their children have changed the world in the fields of architecture, poetry, scientific research, fashion design, publishing, information technology -- you name it! The rock band Huey Lewis and the News exists because Huey's mother, from Poland, was rescued by Sousa Mendes. The children's character Curious George exists because H. A. Rey and Margret Rey, from Germany, were rescued by Sousa Mendes. All paintings by Salvador Dali created past 1940 exist because Dali, a Spaniard who was on Franco's enemy list, was rescued by Sousa Mendes.
Even the internet would be a different place. Jonah Peretti, co-founder of The Huffington Post and the inventor of BuzzFeed, is the grandson of Sousa Mendes visa recipient Adina Cherkin.
In the summer of 1940, the Portuguese government recalled Sousa Mendes to Lisbon and accused him of disobedience. He was put on trial, and harsh consequences ensued--he was stripped of his post and pension, forbidden to work or travel, and shunned by former colleagues, friends, and even relatives. He died in 1954 in poverty, nearly erased from history.
Now, 72 years after the Bordeaux events, an important new development is occurring. The Sousa Mendes Foundation has taken on the task of identifying, locating, and contacting the families saved by Aristides de Sousa Mendes. And today, on Long Island, the largest reunion of these rescued families is taking place on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day and in tandem with the U.S. premiere of the film, Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story, directed by Joël Santoni.
Beyond the material loss and social humiliation, Aristides and my grandmother Angelina suffered the painful consequence of having no choice but to ask each of their children to leave Portugal and to bravely pursue their lives towards an uncertain future.
In his fight for reinstatement, Sousa Mendes transmitted the message to each one of his children, an ultimate request to make the truth known someday: that the noble, generous way in which Portugal welcomed thousands of refugees in 1940 was the result of his defiance of a dictator in the mold of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco.
Right until his last days my grandfather remained true to himself, never regretting his altruistic deed.
The descendants of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, in spite of the geographical distances and the different languages we speak, form a family strongly united around a common desire to memorialize his deeds. In concrete terms, my family's deepest wish is to see the abandoned and ruined ancestral home, called the Casa do Passal, in Cabanas de Viriato, Portugal, transformed into a humanitarian center and site of conscience.
For decades, the Bordeaux events and their aftermath were considered by my family as our private drama, a succession of sad events that needed to be accepted in silence. But now, the extraordinary concerted efforts of many dedicated people to widely disseminate information on Sousa Mendes' life and values hearten us. Such initiatives mark the passage of the family from pain and sorrow toward a state of serenity. The weight of the injustice disappears with the worldwide recognition of Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
As we pause today to remember the victims of the Holocaust, let us also remember Holocaust rescuers such as my grandfather, and may their memory be an invaluable beacon for humanity.