World War II Holocaust hero's honor caught up in politics
San Francisco — American pressure is building for Portugal to honor a little-known World War II Holocaust hero, Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes. During the 1940 Nazi invasion of France, Dr. Mendes was the Portuguese consul at Bordeaux. Defying Portuguese government orders, he issued transit visas to Portugal to some 30,000 refuguees, including perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 Jews. He is credited with saving their lives.
A number of historians have compared his individual heroism to that of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving 100,000 Jews during the war. To date, however, the Portuguese government has never publicly honored the late Mendes.
Observers note that opposition to acknowledging Mendes's accomplishments appears to be strongest among former supporters of dictator Antonio Salazar who are still working within the Portuguese Foreign Ministry.
Portuguese Prime Minister Cavaco Silva and Foreign Minister Pedro Bires de Miranda will be visiting Washington, D.C., Sept. 6-7. United States Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, the House's only Portuguese-American, intends to raise the Mendes case with these officials.
Representative Coelho and 70 cosponsors have introduced a bill in the House urging the Portuguese government to recognize Mendes's heroism.
For the past five months, the Mendes family in the US and Portugal has launched a concerted campaign to publicize the wrongs done to their father. John Abranches, Mendes's youngest son, who lives in Dublin, Calif., says that in 1940 the Portuguese dictatorship of Mr. Salazar specifically ordered his father not to issue visas to citizens of the Soviet Union, Portuguese political exiles, and all Jews.
As an act of Christian faith, however, Mendes decided to issue the visas to all comers. For these actions, the Salazar regime recalled Mendes to Lisbon and summarily fired him. He never worked again, was forced slowly to sell off his possessions, and died in poverty 14 years later.
Mr. Abranches now asks that the Portuguese government formally apologize to the family, that Mendes be posthumously promoted to ambassador, and that a monument or scholarship fund be established in his honor. In Portugal, the family has asked the government to restore the family estate and return it to them.
To date, the Portuguese government has not publicly responded to these requests. Although Portugal's fascist regime was overthrown in 1974, Abranches asks why today's parliamentary government will not honor the Holocaust hero. Coelho says that some people in the Portuguese Foreign Ministry oppose it.
``If you look at it from their point of view, . . . Dr. Mendes violated the law of the land,'' says Coelho, ``and now would be honored for violating it.''
Antonio Colaco, a columnist for Lisbon's Popular Daily, believes the Mendes case is an example of Portugal failing to confront its fascist past.
``There are still a lot of people from those days'' in the Foreign Office, Mr. Colaco said from Lisbon. ``They don't want the case dealt with because of the embarrassment it would bring to them.''
Giuseppi de Palma, chairman of the political science department at the University of California at Berkeley, says that ``the process of defascization was very limited'' in Portugal. ``Some people in the military were sacked on the left, not Salazar's supporters,'' he adds.
Coelho hopes that newly elected socialist President Mario Soares will swing government support to honor Mendes. Coelho plans to pursue the case.
The Mendes family and many in Portugal are waiting to see which view the current Portuguese government will finally adopt.
Contacted at the Washington embassy, Portuguese officials declined comment on the Mendes case.