Services honor Portuguese diplomat who saved 30,000 Jews

new york | A late-night visit from a refugee rabbi during World War II convinced a Portuguese official to save Jews from Hitler.

Rabbi Haim Kruger, a refugee in France, and Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portugal’s consul general in Bordeaux, “spoke all through the night about the problems of the war,” Sebastiao de Sousa Mendes, the consul’s son, said recently. “In the morning, my father decided that it was time to save rather than ignore the refugees.”

So Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued visas to endangered Jews against the orders of the Portuguese dictator, Antonio Salazar.

He took the risk because he would “rather be with God against men than with men against God,” Sousa Mendes is reported to have said.

That risk saved 30,000 Jewish lives, but it cost Sousa Mendes his job. He died in 1954 in a Lisbon poorhouse, having relied upon the local Jewish community for food and health care for years.

Though Sousa Mendes was honored as a Righteous Gentile by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 1967, honor within his native Portugal was spurred, oddly enough, by a push from the Bay Area.

Motivated by a 1986 petition circulated by then-East Bay resident John Paul Abranches, one of Sousa Mendes’ 14 children, the East Bay Jewish community rallied to the cause, bringing the former diplomat’s case to the attention of then-U.S. Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), a Portuguese American.

Coelho spearheaded efforts to recognize Sousa Mendes’ heroics on the national level. Robert Jacobvitz, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater East Bay at the time, co-founded an international committee dedicated to the diplomat.

In 1987, Sousa Mendes was posthumously awarded the Order of Liberty Medal. In 1995, he was given Portugal’s highest honor and inducted into the Order of Christ. That year, a memorial for the diplomat was erected in downtown Lisbon.

Marking the 50 years since Sousa Mendes’ death, his legacy is being honored for a week, beginning Thursday, June 17 — 64 years to the day since he started his rescue mission in 1940. The special interfaith initiative is being led by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat based in Hungary, saved about 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust, and is also recognized as a Righteous Gentile by the Yad Vashem.

“We Jewish people have to have a balance between complaining about what we suffered and celebrating the people who helped us,” said Baruch Tenembaum, founder of the Wallenberg Foundation in New York.

When there is shade, there is also light, Tenembaum said, and Sousa Mendes was one ray of light in the darkness of the Holocaust.

Organizers of the interfaith initiative contacted churches and synagogues around the world to request that special services be held beginning June 17.

As part of the events, the 50th Anniversary Sousa Mendes Medal will be given to Father Bernard Jacques Riviere of Bordeaux for preserving Sousa Mendes’ memory through his radio program and articles.

Recipients of the International Sousa Mendes Righteous Award will be announced at ceremonies in Rome and New York, officials said.

Without Sousa Mendes’ visas, which he distributed as the Nazis were advancing on the south of France, thousands of Jews “wouldn’t have made it,” said Isaac Bitton, whose aunt, Esther, managed the Jewish soup kitchen in Portugal that Sousa Mendes frequented in his later years.

“The people he saved were flabbergasted, amazed and grateful,” said Abranches, who lives in California.

As a child in Portugal, Abranches met and spoke with people his father saved. As an adult, he has met other survivors at memorial events for his father.

Abranches said the gratitude will be reflected back during the week’s events.

“For the first time you will see cardinals all over the world celebrate in Mass to remember somebody who devoted and gave his life to save Jewish people,” Tenembaum said.

Rabbis in Jerusalem, New York, Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, Montreal, Poland and France will hold synagogue services honoring Sousa Mendes.

Masses in his honor will be held in New York, the Vatican, France, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Poland, East Timor, Cape Verde and elsewhere, according to the Wallenberg Foundation.

Tenembaum said he admires Sousa Mendes’ righteousness and says it’s necessary to spread recognition of his actions.

“It’s not just that we remember them, we are motivating others to remember them,” he said. “It’s a chain of good will.’