'Portugal's Schindler' Is Remembered, Decades After His Lifesaving Deeds

Aug 4, 2016
Originally published on August 4, 2016 5:00 pm

A group of about 50 people gathered in late June in the sunny courtyard of the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux, France. It was from here in 1939 and 1940 that Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches issued approximately 30,000 visas to Jews and other stateless refugees.

Lissy Jarvik, who lives today in California, was one of them.

"I was a recipient of a Sousa Mendes visa," she tells the group. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here. I would've no longer been alive 72 years ago."

Jarvik was just 16 when her Jewish family fled their home in the Netherlands in 1940. She's come back to France today with her two sons. They are part of a group, including visa recipients and their descendants, making a 10-day pilgrimage tracing the escape route taken through France, Spain and Portugal. It was from Portugal that they finally got out of Europe.

This group is also paying tribute to Sousa Mendes, the man who made their lives possible.

While the heroic stories of others who saved Jews during World War II are better known — such as German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved Jews by employing them in his factory — the story of Sousa Mendes, who saved the lives of 10 times as many Jews as Schindler, has remained relatively unknown.

But that is changing.

Jarvik says she always assumed the Portuguese government had issued her family's visas to get out of France. Portugal was neutral during the war. But its Fascist dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, had actually issued orders banning Jews, Russians and stateless people from entering the country.

Sousa Mendes, his country's consul general in Bordeaux, knowingly disobeyed those orders, frantically signing visas day and night just before he was recalled to Lisbon in late June 1940.

At each stop along the way of this pilgrimage, covering a route including Bordeaux, Salamanca and Lisbon, people give testimonials. Some read old letters from late family members who escaped. But George Helft reaches back into his own memory. He was 6 when his family fled Paris, as the Nazis entered the city in June 1940.

"It's difficult for me to describe the roads then," he says. "But I remember them very, very well. They were filled with baby carriages, old cars with mattresses on the roof and six people inside. Thousands of people were walking, some with wheelbarrows, and of course everyone going south."

Helft's extended family got out of France and was able to reach New York. He only recently found out this was all because of Sousa Mendes.

Olivia Mattis, president of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, based in Huntington, N.Y., says it wasn't until 2011 that volunteers with the recently formed organization began to identify visa recipients. They were able to do so by comparing the names on a ledger from the Bordeaux Portuguese consulate, found in the mid-1990s, with ship passenger lists. While the ledger only gave the name of the head of the family, the ships listed every single passenger.

Retired American newspaper editor Rebel Good remembers getting a call four years ago at his home in North Carolina.

"It was from someone who said he was with a foundation," says Good. "At first, I thought he was asking me for money. But he brought me up short by asking me pretty quickly if I were the son of Annelies Kaufmann."

Good says his late mother never talked about her escape from Europe. After the call, he dug out her old Dutch passport.

"And I opened the passport up to the center, and the visa was there with Aristides de Sousa Mendes' signature on it," says Good. "It was a very moving and chilling moment to see that connection just come forward."

Since 2011, nearly 4,000 visa recipients have been identified. Another is 82-year-old Stephen Rozenfeld. When he was 5, he fled Lodz, Poland, with his family.

"We never knew what happened to our family when they got to Bordeaux," says Leah Sills, his daughter, who accompanied her father on the pilgrimage. "We never knew that part. And to find out that this one man sacrificed his own family and his own life for all these people is incredible."

When he was called back to Portugal in June 1940, Sousa Mendes was tried on 15 charges including violating Portugal's prohibition on visas for Jews and other stateless people. He was found guilty and dismissed from the diplomatic service. A father of 15, he was stripped of his pension and lived in poverty until his death in 1954. At his own urging, 11 of his children emigrated — some to countries in Africa and others to the U.S. and Canada.

Gerald Mendes, one of Sousa Mendes' many far-flung grandchildren, is also on the pilgrimage. He was born and grew up in Montreal. He says his grandfather was officially rehabilitated by the Portuguese government in 1988, and the family received an official apology from the president. The connections and stories pouring forth on this trip are important for his grandfather's legacy, he says.

"The story of each refugee is a new brick in the story of Sousa Mendes," he says. "But all these testimonies are especially important, because the story needs to be documented for the future to fight Holocaust deniers. Especially as survivors die out."

Many members of this group are struck by the parallel to what's happening with refugees around the world today. Visa recipient Helft ends his testimonial with a plea for acceptance.

"Forget about walls," he says. "Walls with Mexico, walls in Israel. Of course, accepting a flow of refugees, there are undesirables. How many? One percent? Think of all the others. Think of the children who are escaping horrors."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

During World War II, a Portuguese diplomat saved thousands of lives by issuing visas allowing Jews and others to get out of Nazi-occupied France. Decades after the war, that diplomat's name remained unknown for many years until now. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met up with a group on a pilgrimage to honor him.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can I have your attention?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: About 50 people are gathered in the sunny courtyard of the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux. From this city in 1939 and '40, Head Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued approximately 30,000 visas to Jews and other stateless refugees. Ninety-two-year-old Lissy Jarvik, who lives today in California, was one of them.

LISSY JARVIK: I'm Lissy Jarvik, and I was a recipient of a Sousa Mendes visa. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here today. I would have no longer been alive 72 years ago.

BEARDSLEY: Jarvik was just 16 when her Jewish family fled their home in the Netherlands. She, like many others, always thought it was the Portuguese government who got them out. Portugal was neutral during the war. But its fascist dictator, Antonio Salazar, issued orders banning Jews and other undesirables from entering the country. Sousa Mendes consciously disobeyed those orders, frantically signing visas day and night just before he was recalled to Lisbon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How is my voice? Do you hear me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Very well.

BEARDSLEY: This group of mostly descendants of visa recipients has come back to honor Sousa Mendes and to trace their families' paths to freedom through France, Spain and Portugal. At each stop, there are testimonials. Some read old letters from family members who escaped, but George Helft reaches back into his own memory. He was 6 years old when his family fled Paris as the Nazis entered the city in June 1940.

GEORGE HELFT: It's difficult for me to describe the roads then. But I remember them very, very well - with baby carriages, old cars with mattresses on the roof and six people inside - some people walking, some people with wheelbarrows and, of course, everyone going south.

BEARDSLEY: Helft's extended family got out of France and were able to reach New York. He only recently found out it was all because of Sousa Mendes. When he was called back to Portugal in June 1940, Sousa Mendes was tried, found guilty and dismissed from the diplomatic service. He was stripped of his pension and lived with his wife Angelina in poverty until his death in 1954. Only decades later is Sousa Mendes beginning to get the recognition he deserves.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARISTIDES DE SOUSA MENDES: A REBEL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In 2009, there was a French movie about him. Since 2011, volunteers with the Sousa Mendes Foundation have been able to identify nearly 4,000 of his visa recipients. Retired newspaper editor Rebel Goode got a call at his home in North Carolina four years ago.

REBEL GOODE: From someone who said he was with a foundation - and my first thought was that he was asking me for money. But he brought me up short by asking me pretty quickly if I were the son of Analies Kaufman (ph).

BEARDSLEY: Good says his mother never talked about her escape when she was alive. After the call, he got out her old Dutch passport.

GOODE: And opened up the passport to the center - and immediately the visa was there with Aristides de Sousa Mendes's signature on it. And it was a very moving and chilling moment to see that connection just come forward.

BEARDSLEY: Many members of this group are struck by the parallel with what's happening with refugees around the world today. Visa recipient George Helft ends his testimonial with a plea for acceptance.

HELFT: Forget about walls, walls to Mexico, walls in Israel. Of course, accepting a flow of refugees - there are undesirables. How many? One percent? Think of all the others. Think of the children who are escaping from horrors. We were told the same thing. If you are let into the United States, there will be on that ship Nazi spies. Of course there may have been Nazi spies.

BEARDSLEY: But, says Helft, 3,500 people did reach New York and were able to build happy and fulfilling lives.

MONTAGNE: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Bordeaux. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.