FORGOTTEN HERO. Portugal's President to honor diplomat who defied Holocaust
Washington — In a ceremony today at the Portuguese Embassy in Washington, Portuguese President Mario Soares will posthumously award his country's highest civilian medal to Dr. Ar'istides de Sousa Mendes. The medal, which will be accepted by members of Dr. Mendes's family, commemorates the late diplomat's heroism during the Holocaust. In June 1940, Mendes saved the lives of an estimated 30,000 refugees fleeing the Nazi invasion of France. Because he disobeyed the orders of Portugal's dictator, Ant'onio Salazar, and issued visas to Jews, Mendes was sacked and disgraced. He later died in poverty.
Mendes has already been honored in Israel, and by state legislatures in New York, Massachusetts, California, and New Jersey. But the Portuguese government has not scheduled any commemorations in Portugal itself.
According to Mendes's family, their father's case is still largely unknown in his homeland. One leader of the International Committee for the Commemoration of Dr. Ar'istides de Sousa Mendes says that pro-Salazar elements within the Portuguese Foreign Ministry to this day do not want Mendes rehabilitated.
Raised in a wealthy aristocratic family, Mendes joined Portugal's Foreign Service after graduating from law school. Before World War II he held diplomatic posts in Zanzibar, Brazil, San Francisco, and Boston. According to Mendes's youngest son, John Abranches, who today lives in northern California, his Roman Catholic father was very religious.
Mr. Abranches says that Mendes is a Marrano name. In 1497, the Portuguese Inquisition forced Jews to convert to Catholicism, and they became known as Marranos. Mendes means ``new Christian'' in Portuguese.
But even though the family had practiced Catholicism for 450 years, later events were to show that, for some members of Portugal's elite, Mendes was still a Jew.
When the German Army invaded France in May 1940, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled south, hoping to cross Spain to Portugal and then leave Europe.
Portuguese dictator Salazar, while formally neutral, was an admirer of fascist leaders Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy. He ordered his embassies not to issue visas to Portuguese political exiles, Soviet citizens, and all Jews.
Tens of thousands of refugees camped out in front of the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux, France, where Mendes was consul. Caesar Mendes, his nephew, explains what Mendes said to the crowd.
``I cannot allow these people to die,'' Mendes said. ``Many are Jews and our Constitution says that the religion or the politics of a foreigner shall not be used to deny him refuge in Portugal. I have decided to follow this principle. ... Even if I am discharged, I can only act as a Christian, as my conscience tells me.''
Mendes, his eldest son, and his nephew spent June 16-18 hand-writing more than 30,000 visas, an estimated 10,000 to Jews. The Portuguese government sent two officials to recall him to Lisbon. Driving back toward Spain, they halted in Bayonne, France, where tens of thousands of refugees were lined up at the Portuguese consulate. Mendes spent one more day writing visas, defying his government once again.
Upon his return to Lisbon, a furious Portuguese dictatorship immediately fired the career diplomat. He was never able to find work again.
After the war, Mendes appealed to the Portuguese National Assembly for justice, but was rebuffed. Slowly the family sold off their possessions, their villa near Lisbon fell into ruin, and the family dispersed to other parts of Portugal, Canada, and the US. Mendes died in 1954.
Left-wing military officers overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974. At the insistence of Mendes's daughter, Joanna, the government asked a former ambassador, Dr. Nuno A.A. de Bessa Lopes, to investigate the case.
Dr. Bessa Lopes's 1976 report recommended that Mendes be rehabilitated. The study quoted Foreign Ministry documents that referred to the Mendes family as ``descendants of Jews.'' Evidently some Foreign Ministry officials thought Mendes rescued the Jewish refugees because he himself was a Jew. ``Apparently,'' wrote Bessa Lopes, ``the poor Consul Sousa Mendes was unable to escape the claws of the new inquisition which stubbornly persists in Portugal. ... The inquisitorial spirit left deep roots in the soul of Portugal.''
The report was suppressed, however, and became public only late last year.
For the past year the Mendes family intensified their efforts to have Portugal honor their father. Robert Jacobvitz, executive director of the International Committee to Commemorate Ar'istides de Sousa Mendes, helped John Abranches contact US Rep. Tony Coehlo of California, the House Democratic whip and the only Portuguese-American in Congress.
After Congressman Coehlo met with Portuguese Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva in September, the government agreed Mendes would receive Portugal's Order of Freedom Medal. A Portuguese Embassy spokesman explains that the award ``honors people who have committed themselves to the cause of freedom.''
While extremely pleased at the US medal presentation, the International Committee also wants recognition for Mendes in his homeland.
Mr. Jacobvitz says there are no government-sponsored events scheduled in Portugal. ``Some children of Foreign Ministry officials or older officials,'' claims Jacobvitz, ``are still pro-fascist and don't want Mendes honored.''
Congressman Coelho says that ``of course, there is resistance in the Foreign Ministry and always will be.'' But he maintains that the President, prime minister, and foreign minister are all committed to honoring Mendes. He hopes to participate in a commemorative event in Portugal this year.
But Coelho acknowledges that, to date, the Portuguese government has not responded to the Mendes family's other requests. John Abranches asks that Dr. Mendes be posthumously promoted to the rank of ambassador and a monument or scholarship fund be dedicated to him. Sebastian Mendes, another son, wants the family to receive reparations for their years of suffering.
``It's nice to have a medal,'' Abranches notes, ``but 500 years from now nobody would know about it. I want people in Portugal to know who he was, what he did, and why he did it.''