Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the tragedy of the Portuguese man who saved more Jews than Oskar Schindler

Written By Araci Almeida

From time to time, certain lands witness the birth of men whose names will remain engraved in the pages of history. Some for their negative influence, others for having dared to follow a path of righteousness, justice, and kindness, even though they knew it could cost them dearly. 

In the Beira Alta region, a land known for embodying Portuguese characteristics of honor and obedience, two men echoed their names for eternity while embracing these traits. And if one employed obedience as a manipulation weapon, the other took the side of honor and used it as his banner.

Two fellow men from nearby villages became part not just of this region’s history but a wider one. 

Two men whose contrasting ideals would mark the story of many people’s lives in opposite directions. 

For better and worse, I am talking about two unique men, Aristides de Sousa Mendes and António de Oliveira Salazar.

Born on July 19, 1885, in Cabanas de Viriato, Viseu district, the man who would later be said to have “saved more Jews than Oskar Schindler,” Aristides de Sousa Mendes could have chosen a life full of ease. 

He was born in a typical family of the rural Portuguese aristocracy. Catholic and defender of the monarchical regime, he nonetheless vowed not to obey the laws of unscrupulous men but to the Law of the divine.

In turn, and not far from Cabanas, António Oliveira Salazar was born four years later, on April 8, 1889, in Santa Comba Dão, in the same district. 

Born into a conservative and Catholic peasant family, Salazar would be the Portuguese fascist dictator of the 20th century. A regime that would last for forty-eight years, ending belatedly on April 25, 1974. 

However, even if the two men studied Law at the University of Coimbra, the lessons on the sense of justice were felt and learned unevenly. 

If one was ruled by the sense of authority, imposing it harshly on the people, censoring any freedom of expression, holding the whole country back, the other opted for goodness, righteousness, and a sense of integrity. 

The Catholicism taught to both had, nevertheless, been understood differently.

If Salazar used it as a motto for a conservative lifestyle imposed on the country, Aristides looked at the side of mutual help and kindness.

Both worked for the government, but while the dictator would not go far away from his roots, Aristides became an ambassador, taking Portugal’s name to the world’s four corners.

Aristides’ life seemed to be a delight for some time. He traveled to the four continents with his numerous children (14 in all), and his life went smoothly while his country entered a deep political and economic crisis. 

The fall of the monarchy with the regicide of 1908. The instability of the 16 years of the first republic. The weak industrialization in a country with huge discrepancies between the urban and rural world and the final establishment of the military dictatorship in 1926. 

All and more paved the way for the establishment of fascism that Salazar represented.  

With the outbreak of World War II, Portugal, even though neutral, still had a dictatorial regime with an ideology that quickly aligned with those of Hitler and Mussolini. 

And as such, following the same ideological line, as soon as the borders began closing to Jews and all minorities persecuted by the Nazi regime, Salazar issued a law prohibiting the same people from entering Portuguese territory.

The ill-fated circular number 14, approved on November 11, 1939, by the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was aimed to be distributed to all men representing the country in the various embassies. 

Upon receiving it in Bordeaux Embassy and witnessing what was happening to thousands, Aristides had no choice but to disobey. 

And these are exactly the small moments that become big in history. One single decision would change the lives of thousands for generations to come.

Using his power as an ambassador, Aristides rapidly began to issue visas to all the people he could save.

Helped by his friend Rabbi Kruger, Aristides is reported to have said that “if one must disobey, I would rather disobey an order of men than an order of God.”

Filled then with divine inspiration and a sense of kindness, he set up a kind of assembly line in the streets of Bordeaux and frantically stamped all the possible passports to save those souls condemned to the cruelest of deaths.

However, his fame was a double edge sword. 

If, on the one hand, his remarkable reputation quickly spread, and more and more Jews were queuing up in the streets of Bordeaux, it also promptly reached Salazar. 

The result was predictable: the dictator not only stripped him of his powers but also took away all of his sustenance. 

Aristides would die in the same house where he was born, in Cabanas de Viriato, in extreme poverty.

Time and oblivion would ruin that house, which was only considered national heritage in 2011. 

Since then, requalification works have been slowly taking place, and although the house has been approved to become a museum, it remains closed to the public.

But more than a future museum, what remains is the human legacy of the man who saved over thirty thousand lives from Nazi persecution in 1940. 

According to the Aristides de Sousa Mendes Foundation, his act of bravery in doing what was right in such awful times is “considered the greatest rescue action undertaken by an individual person.”

Taken from the book “Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese Hero” by José-Alain Fallon, the humanity of his character is deeply felt in the following words:

They were waiting.

In the heat of that Bordeaux summer, they were waiting, thousands of them.

(…)

All were fleeing from the barbarians, whose shadow was casting over the whole of Europe.

They were called refugees. But now we know that they had been purely and simply condemned to death.

To save their lives, each one had only to get a simple signature on their passport.

But the only man who could put that signature on them was not authorized to do so. Because they were Jews, Polish, or stateless. Or of “undefined nationality .” Or to use the exact term undesirables.

How many men would have limited themselves to washing their hands like Pilate and obeying their superiors? It’s not my responsibility!

Not him!

His name was Aristides de Sousa Mendes.” 

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