Advocates and Allies: Aristedes de Sousa Mendes
The Fellowship | January 7, 2015
Life: July 19, 1885 – April 3, 1954
Why you should know him: Aristedes de Sousa Mendes was a Portugeuse diplomat who defied his nation’s dictatorship during World War II, issuing thousands of visas to European Jews which allowed them to escape certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Born in 1885 in Cabanas de Viriato, Portugal, Sousa Mendes trained as an attorney and began a career as a consul for Portugal, a job that would find him traveling the world. An independent and just-minded man, Sousa Mendes often angered his government by expressing his views. This independent streak found him suspended and in financial straits.
In the early 1930s, Portugal fell under the rule of the dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Salazar’s decrees made it very difficult for refugees from Nazi Germany to escape via Portugal – until Aristedes de Sousa Mendes defied these unjust laws.
Viewing the Portugeuse dictatorship’s law – called “Circular 14” – as inhumane and racist, Sousa Mendes began to defy it right away. As the Nazis spread across Europe, Sousa Mendes issued thousands of visas to those who escaped them.
This decision – in opposition to his country, and to the detriment of his career – caused Sousa Mendes to have a nervous breakdown. But after a period of seclusion and rest, he defiantly declared: “From now on I’m giving everyone visas. There will be no more nationalities, races or religions.”
These acts of supreme good continued until the government of Portugal stopped him, also blacklisting and banishing Sousa Mendes and his family. Now refugees, themselves, the family took their meals at the soup kitchens of Lisbon’s Jewish community. During the rest of his life, he was never recognized for his acts of sacrifice, and died poor and alone.
Today, however, it is widely recognized that Aristedes de Sousa Mendes issued 30,000 visas, 10,000 of which went to Jews escaping the Nazis. Interestingly, two of those saved by visas he issued were H.A. and Margaret Rey, the Jewish husband and wife who created the beloved children’s book series, Curious George.
Long after he died in 1954, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes is remembered for his heroic and selfless actions, honored internationally by many bodies, and named Righteous Among the Nations.