In 1940 during WWII, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was serving as the Portuguese Consul General just outside of Bordeaux, France (1). At the time, Portugal was under the dictatorial rule of Antonio Salazar, and even though it was declared as officially neutral in the war, Salazar issued a directive called “Circular 14” to all of Portugal’s diplomats, instructing them to deny safe haven to refugees (1) . This directive explicitly called for discrimination against “Jews, Russians and stateless persons who could not freely return to their countries of origin” (1). However, Sousa Mendes knew that a Portuguese visa would allow these refugees to travel safely though Spain to Lisbon, where they could easily travel to other parts of the world (1). Not being able to turn a blind eye to this inhumane proposition, Sousa Mendes ended up issuing about 30 000 refugee visas (1). A devout Catholic, he is quoted as saying, “I would rather stand with God against Man than with Man against God” (1).
However heroic this act may have been, especially in the eyes of the refugees, it did not go unpunished (1). Salazar not only stripped Sousa Mendes of his diplomatic position and prevented him from earning a living, he also blacklisted his 15 children from attending university or finding meaningful work (1). Just before dying in 1954, he asked his children to work to clear his name, so that his family honour could be restored (1).
Aristides Sousa Mendes is a very important figure for many Jews across the globe, and to the Portuguese as well, who are proud to associate such a selfless and compassionate act with part of their history. According to Holocaust historian Yehuda Baer, what Sousa Mendes did is considered as “the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.” (1).
Sousa Mendes is recognized worldwide for his role in saving many lives during WWII, and in Toronto alone there are two sites where homage is paid in his honour. The first monument can be found inside of Arlingtion Parkette, result of an initiative put forth by the Cultural Association of April 25, inaugurated on October 20, 2013 (2). The second monument is located in Earl Bales Park in North York, as park of a larger Holocaust memorial site (3).
Andrea da Costa
1. Aristides de Sousa Mendes: His Life and Legacy. Sousa Mendes Foundation. https://sousamendesfoundation.org/
2. Canada: Garden in Toronto will inaugurate the monument Sousa Mendes. Mundo Português. https://www.mundoportugues.org/article/view/61004?idLang=213. October 8, 2013.
3. Unveiling of Refurbished Shoah Memorial Draws 600 People. Canadian Jewish News. https://www.cjnews.com/news/canada/unveiling-refurbished-shoah-memorial-draws-600-people. October 4, 2015.