Amidst the current refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, many people have looked back at the dismal record of the world in responding to the refugee crisis on the 1930s from Nazi Germany. Hesitant to compare, I only seek to understand and to ponder.
January 27th will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date chosen marks the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet soldiers on January 27, 1945. When the Red Army entered most of the prisoners had been forcibly evacuated on what has become known as death marches. Working hastily, the SS blew up the gas chambers and set their files to flames in a desperate attempt to eradicate evidence of their crimes. Still what the Soviets found revealed the depth of destruction -- 348,820 men's suits, 836,255 women's coats, 13,964 carpets, 14,000 pounds of human hair, even the construction documents of the killing installations and, most importantly a few survivors including children who could bear witness to what had happened. All could not be hidden despite the best efforts of the SS.
Yet this year two Los Angeles Holocaust institutions - The Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University and Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust -- will join together to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day not merely by recalling the crime but by telling the story of one man, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who was the linchpin of what is most likely the largest rescue operation during the Holocaust. Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese diplomat operating in Bordeaux in the hours immediately following the German invasion of France, the Netherlands and Belgium when tens of thousands of refugees swarmed to Southern France hoping to gain safety from the Nazi menace by fleeing into Spain or finding a haven in one of the countries that still accepted refugees.
The government of Portugal responded to the refugee crisis with a document called Circular 14, explicitly instructing its diplomats not to issue visas, shutting down its immigration process. Entry was prohibited at the very moment when a stamp in a passport made all the difference between life and death.
Operating in explicit defiance of his Foreign Offices instruction, Aristides de Sousa Mendes responded to the desperate people around him who swarmed the Consulate and continued to issue visas. Together with two of his sons and some Jews who were waiting for visas nearby, he worked day and night between June 15th and June 22nd to issue thousands of visas to Jews and to other refugees before he collapsed from exhaustion.
Most of the people rescued were ordinary men and women, along with their children who faced persecution and who within two years, would have been transported to the death camps of German-occupied Poland. Among those rescued by Sousa Mendes were Salvador Dali and Hans and Margret Rey, better known as the authors of Curious George.
The Portuguese Foreign office caught wind of his efforts and recalled him home, de Sousa Mendes was put on trial in Portugal for "disobedience" and was harshly punished and disgraced. For the next quarter century he was unable to support his large family of 15 children and died penniless in 1954.
The verdict of his contemporaries was that he was a rogue diplomat flooding his country with unwanted and often desperate and dependent families unable to care for themselves. Portugal was fearful that Nazi agents were among the refugees bringing their venomous racism and antisemitism and undermining the neutrality of Portugal.
The verdict of history is that he is a man of nobility who saved perhaps as many as 30,000 men, women and children regardless of race and religion.
His motives were clear. He saw the desperation of the oppressed and the inhumanity of closing off havens for rescue and he acted. When asked to explain why he said: if thousands of Jews were suffering because of one Christian [Hitler], surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews.
Los Angeles will celebrate the moral heroism of this man in a concert on January 24th at the American Jewish University featuring the World Premiere of the dramatic oratorio Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides by composer Neely Bruce, the John Spencer Camp Professor of Music at Wesleyan University. Conducted by Donald Brinegar directing the Donald Brinegar Singers, the composer Bruce will be at the piano. Among the soloists are talented men and women of the LA Opera. The part of Aristides's brother César, a spoken role, will be played by the actor Michel Gill of the hit Netflix series "House of Cards," who is the son and grandson of de Sousa Mendes visa recipients.
A Museum exhibition on Sousa Mendes will open on January 22 at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park, telling not only his story but the individual stories of families he saved and featuring original artifacts. On January 23 two films will be screened whose very titles reveal the nature of his achievement: With God Against Man and Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story.
As one contemplates the life of this noble yet disgraced diplomat, we must ponder how different are the hasty, fearful judgments of governments and the heroic, dissident acts of men and women of conscience determined to remain moral in an immoral world. Sadder still, we must wonder why all this sounds so familiar.