In 1940, A Portuguese Diplomat Helped Thousands of Refugees Flee Nazi-Occupied France

In 1940, A Portuguese Diplomat Helped Thousands of Refugees Flee Nazi-Occupied France

Ten thousand of the men, women, and children Sousa Mendes saved were Jews who would have ended up in German labor or death camps.

Here's What You Need to Know: Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat, defied his government and saved thousands from the Nazis.

Panic and confusion reigned across France as the bright, warm spring of 1940 turned into summer.

Blitzkrieg, a brutal new mode of warfare, was on the loose in Western Europe. After crushing the gallant Polish Army in 28 days in the fall of 1939, fast-moving German Army panzer and infantry columns rumbled across the Belgian and Dutch borders on May 10, 1940, bypassing the vaunted Maginot Line and thrusting into France.

The invaders crossed the River Meuse at Sedan on May 14, and their spearheads fanned out across France. Outmaneuvered and dispirited, the French Army reeled before the German juggernaut. Individual French units and the small British Expeditionary Force fought desperate delaying actions, but Field Marshal Heinz Guderian’s panzers rolled on.

On the morning of June 14, mounted and foot units of the German Fourth Army marched triumphantly down the Champs Elysées in Paris, and on the morning of June 22, ministers of the defeatist, uncoordinated French government signed a humiliating armistice in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiegne. By that day, the Germans had covered more than half of France.

To the southwest, the dusty roads of France were jammed with refugees fleeing toward the Pyrenees. Hundreds of thousands of French men, women, and children were joined by Belgians, Dutch, Poles, and Jews—a seething, straggling mass of humanity gripped by fear and desperation, and with only one aim: to keep moving, away from the advancing Germans.

Weary, hungry, and thirsty, the refugees used everything that could move—cars, trucks, farm wagons, pushcarts, and bicycles, all laden with their belongings. They wept, shouted, and cursed. When their battered Renaults and Citroëns eventually broke down or ran out of gasoline, they were abandoned. There was no fuel to be found.

Few had much money, and few knew exactly where they were going, but they trudged on. Their only hope was to make for the southwestern port of Bordeaux, beyond which lay the Pyrenees and neutral Spain and Portugal. The German Luftwaffe added to their miseries.

Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers and Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters pounced out of the sun, machine guns clattering, upon the defenseless columns. The planes roared at treetop level along the roads, raining hellfire on the helpless people. Screams pierced the air as they scrambled for cover in ditches and beneath trees. Spread-eagled bodies lined the roads after each strafing.

But the bedraggled columns wound slowly on toward Bordeaux, and the historic city braced for the deluge of humanity. By the hundreds, the people straggled into Bordeaux. On June 14, officials of the French government joined them, and the city overflowed. The streets were choked with thousands of cars, and the exhausted refugees fell asleep on park benches and sidewalks. Thousands of Jews congregated around the city’s Great Synagogue.

Tempers were frayed and fear was rampant. Many, who knew only too well what their fates would be when the Germans arrived, scrambled for passports or visas to enable them to leave France. Most of them received short shrift. Sea passage was difficult to obtain, except for the few wealthy who were willing to pay skyrocketing prices.

Escape by land was possible only through Spain and Portugal. From Lisbon, sea passage to countries beyond Europe was obtainable. A Portuguese transit visa was needed to exit France, for Spain permitted no refugees to enter her territory who could not present one. Staunchly neutral but sympathetic to German Führer Adolf Hitler, Generalissimo Francisco Franco was determined to keep Spanish soil closed off to the pitiful multitude fleeing the jackboots of Nazism. In addition, the country was suffering post-Civil War chaos and widespread starvation. Spain wanted no settlers, or new mouths to feed.

In Bordeaux, thousands of frantic refugees besieged the handsome Portuguese consulate at 14 Quai Louis XVIII, each hoping to gain an all-important Portuguese transit visa before the German Army arrived. There, they found a man who virtually held their lives in his hands.

He was Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a dedicated career diplomat, devout Roman Catholic, and father of 12. He had an unshakable conscience and the plight of the refugees touched him deeply. However, under the orders of Portugal’s autocratic dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, there was little that Sousa Mendes was permitted to do for the displaced host. The neutral countries of Europe feared provoking Hitler, and Salazar had instructed his diplomats to this effect at the start of the war.

Nevertheless, the Portuguese consul swiftly became a beacon of hope for the wretched thousands in Bordeaux, and he felt that he had to do something to help them. So, he did the diplomatically unthinkable: He rebelled against his inhumane orders. First in Bordeaux, and then in Bayonne and on the streets of Hendaye near the Spanish border, Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued transit visas for entry into his tiny, peaceful country to 30,000 refugees, saving them from the Nazis. It was an act unprecedented in diplomatic history.

By the magnitude of his daring and by weight of numbers, he effectively opened up a refugee escape route where none had existed. It would remain through World War II and be used by an estimated one million refugees. Sousa Mendes, who would become known as the “Angel of Bordeaux,” paved the escape route with all he had—his good name, livelihood, health, friends, and the future of his loved ones.

Ten thousand of the men, women, and children he saved were Jews who would have ended up in German labor or death camps. One of them, Moise Elias, told the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem 26 years later, “I recognize as an act of God that such a man as this was at the right place at the right time.” Aristides de Sousa Mendes was the first of the war’s “righteous Gentiles.”

The Man Who Defied Dictators

But the consul’s conscience pitted him against the Portuguese leader, Salazar. Although a mild version of the dictators around him (Hitler, Franco, and Italy’s Benito Mussolini), Salazar brooked no disobedience. Sousa Mendes and his humanitarian feat were officially repudiated by the Lisbon government. For decades during and after the war, no mention of Sousa Mendes was permitted in the country where he and his wife spent the rest of their days as outcasts.

The man who stood alone in 1940 to defy three dictators in defense of humanity was put on trial for disobeying regulations, shunned, and relegated to poverty and oblivion. He died a martyr and was denied even a footnote in the record of World War II.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was born on July 9, 1885, in the village of Cabanas de Viriato in the scenic northern province of Beira Alta, Portugal. He was the son of Jose de Sousa Mendes, a well-to-do high court judge, and Maria Angelina de Abranches. The family lived in a picturesque three-story mansion with a gray slate mansard roof and the coat of arms painted on the ceiling of the entrance hall. Next door was the village church.

Aristides and his twin, Cesar, were raised with strong values centered on the family’s monarchic traditions and profound Catholicism. Aristides and Cesar learned to respect the law at their father’s knee, and they pursued law degrees at Coimbra University, one of the oldest universities in Europe. They graduated in 1907 with identical grades. Opting for careers in the diplomatic corps, they were assigned to successive posts over the globe. They both married, but the bond of twinship remained constant.

Aristides wed his beautiful cousin, Angelina, before entering the Foreign Service in 1910. “Gigi,” as he called her, was a warm-hearted woman of simple tastes and uncommon courage. She would share the burdens of her husband’s one-man crusade against inhumanity and would be victimized along with him, die in poverty, and be denied even a common obituary.

During diplomatic assignments in British Guyana, East Africa, Brazil, California, and elsewhere, Aristides and Angelina produced 14 children. The glamour and adventure of their lifestyle was tempered with many serious bouts of malaria and struggles to find adequate housing and proper schooling for the children.

In 1929, Sousa Mendes was promoted to consul general and assigned to the bustling Belgian port of Antwerp. The family settled in nearby Louvain, where the older sons and daughters attended the famous university. At family gatherings in the evenings, the children played instruments and the consul sang tenor. It was a happy and loving family. Before bedtime, the father led the rosary with the children and the maids, and after church on Sunday mornings, the family took outings in the Belgian countryside.

In order to dispense with frequent head counts, Sousa Mendes bought a truck and converted it into a bizarre-looking bus that could seat 17. The children dubbed the vehicle the “White Pigeon,” and it drew many amused stares when it pulled into parks and disgorged its occupants.