Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a hero for our time

Remember when Sally Yates was fired for defying a president and news media figures immediately invoked Richard Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre?”

I, too, thought of Nixon, for a moment. But then it was another man, a radiant embodiment of resistance to government diktats, who came to mind. His name was Aristides de Sousa Mendes.

Mendes was the reason I found myself standing on the Garonne River embankment at Bordeaux, France in the summer of 2002, trying to figure out which of the townhouses I was gazing at had once been the Portuguese consulate where he had lived and worked.

A Catholic aristocrat, lawyer and career diplomat, Mendes came to Bordeaux as the Salazar dictatorship’s consul-general for southwest France. With his wife and a number of his fourteen children, Mendes moved into that townhouse on the Garonne.

It was 1938.

In May 1940, Germany invaded France and by June had entered Paris. A massive exodus of frightened Europeans had already begun. Soon the French government itself evacuated to Bordeaux, which would shortly form the core of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

Spain and Portugal had maneuvered to remain neutral in the oncoming war. Vulnerable people, many of them Jews desperate to get out of countries threatened with German occupation, picked up rumors that Portugal might be open to granting transit visas.

But in November 1938, even before the war erupted, the Salazar government, anxious to accommodate the Nazis and their anti-Semitism, issued the benignly named Circular 14, an executive order specifically forbidding visas to “Jews expelled from the countries of their nationality or from whence they come,” without the explicit case-by-case permission of the Portuguese Foreign Ministry.

Per Circular 14, Aristides de Sousa Mendes had dutifully requested that permission for individuals who had applied to his consulate. Permission was denied. Mendes issued visas anyway. And in April 1940, he received a sharp warning from the Portuguese Foreign Ministry: if he continued to disobey Circular 14, he’d be subject to disciplinary proceedings.

By mid-June, that wide embankment in front of the consulate was packed with refugees and Mendes had opened his doors to as many as could fit into the building. They slept on the floors, on the chairs, even in his family’s own living quarters.

One of the people Mendes had welcomed was a Belgian rabbi, Chaim Kruger. When Mendes offered visas to Kruger and his family, the rabbi demurred. He could not accept visas only for himself when all his fellow Jews were in danger.

Mendes became ill and went to his bed, where he remained alone for three days. He would later call this episode a “nervous breakdown.”

On the morning of June 16, he got up. One of his sons described what happened: “He was full of punch…washed, shaved, and got dressed. Then he strode out of his bedroom, flung open the door to the chancellery, and announced in a loud voice, ‘From now on I’m giving everyone visas. There will be no more nationalities, races, or religions.’”

In that moment, Mendes forfeited his and his family’s future to perform what a Jewish historian later called, “The greatest rescue operation carried out by a single person during the Holocaust.”

Mendes did little else for days but gather passports, thousands of them, and sign visas. “I will save you all!” he proclaimed. Refusing fees, he signed visas for ordinary people, for Austria’s Hapsburg family, for American actor Robert Montgomery, for the entire Belgian cabinet. Then, as the Germans closed in on Bordeaux, a furious Salazar ordered Mendes to be stopped.

But Mendes himself didn’t receive Salazar’s order; he was traveling south to Bayonne, where he signed more visas. And, subsequently, further south to the border town of Hendaye, where he stood in the town square signing and stamping visas on passports, identity cards, on any bit of paper handed him.

He personally escorted one group of refugees to the Spanish border and wielded his position to insist the Spanish police permit them entry. Later, when a nervous Spanish ambassador rebuked him, “Orders must be obeyed,” Mendes replied, “Not if those orders are incompatible with any human feeling.”

The consulate clerk assisting Aristides de Sousa Mendes had to stop recording a log of the visas written in those awful, frantic days. Thus, the numbers of people Mendes saved can only be estimated. That estimate soars as high as 30,000.

In July 1940, Mendes returned to Portugal, where he was formally indicted for defying Circular 14. Mendes wrote an impassioned defense of his actions. Other witnesses, though, accused him of having been out of his mind. One of his own witnesses wrote, “[Mendes] is well aware that a functionary has no need to be humane when it is a question of obeying orders, whatever they may be.”

Mendes lost his case. His appeal was rejected with the explanation, “a civil servant is not competent to question orders which he must obey.”

Marked as a disgraced non-person, a pariah within his own country, Mendes was denied his profession, denied any way of making a living. He was stripped of his pension and had to sell his family home. If erstwhile friends encountered him, they’d cross the street to avoid contact. He was granted a monthly allowance from the Lisbon Jewish refugee community and he and his wife ate in their soup kitchen.

At no time did he pity himself or regret what he had done. “I could not have acted otherwise,” he said.

He died in 1954, age 69, in poverty.

At this point you yearn to read about the posthumous tide of recognition for Aristides de Sousa Mendes’s extraordinary courage and humanity. And, yes, in 1966, Yad Vashem declared him one of the Righteous, although Portugal, his own country, did not “rehabilitate” Mendes until 1988, 18 years after Salazar’s death.

And Bordeaux did not manage to put a plaque honoring Mendes on that riverbank townhouse until 1994–although, when I was in Bordeaux in 2002, I specifically searched for some sign, but saw nothing.

I wasn’t surprised. France did not get around to investigating and indicting its Nazi collaborator, Maurice Papon, until 1983. Papon, a powerful administrator in the Vichy government, had applied his signature to orders deporting Jews to concentration camps. He wasn’t put on trial and convicted until 1996.

During the post-war years, when Aristides de Sousa Mendes was barely surviving, Papon lived very well and successfully as a police official and Gaullist government minister. (Part of his duties included persecuting and killing Algerians.)

Papon died at the age of 96. Toward the end of that long life, he said he had neither “regrets nor remorse for a crime I did not commit and for which I am in no way an accomplice.”

So I think of Aristides de Sousa Mendes often, most passionately when I hear of visas denied to desperate people, and when I read about the abusive Border Control.

About a pregnant teenage girl, trapped by Trump’s religious zealot minions who blocked her from getting the abortion she wanted. About a child with cerebral palsy needing emergency surgery, who was surrounded by government agents during that surgery and afterward deliberately separated from her mother and taken to a holding pen.

About ICE round-ups of helpless, undocumented Americans who will, we are assured, be imprisoned in newly built concentration camps–managed by corporations–until they are deported.

I don’t believe my country has yet descended to such a pit that people who defy bad laws will be stripped of their livelihoods and treated as life-time pariahs. So I expect and call for more sanctuary cities, more American government officials who will emulate Sally Yates and defy executive orders–Trump’s Circular 14s.

They will join Aristides de Sousa Mendes in rejecting laws “incompatible with any human feeling.”

The question is whether the replacement for DHS Secretary John Kelly, commanding a heavily armed milice, will, unlike her predecessor, have the guts and character to take Mendes’s path.

Or will she choose to “obey orders, whatever they may be,” and pass into history with Kelly and far too many others as an American Maurice Papon?

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