This is the story of the Portuguese diplomat who saved thousands from the Nazis. As the German army marched through France, Aristides de Sousa Mendes faced a choice: obey his government or follow his conscience – and risk it all.
Image: Sandra Dionis
Text: Chanan Tigay
(Smithsonian Magazine) Translated with DeepL.
Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes was serving as consul general in France when the Nazis invaded the country.
It was the second week of June 1940, and Aristides de Sousa Mendes did not leave his room. Sousa Mendes, Consul General of Portugal in Bordeaux, France, lived in a large flat overlooking the Garonne River with his wife and several of their 14 children – all of whom were growing increasingly concerned.
An aristocrat and bon vivant, Sousa Mendes loved his family very much. He loved wine. He loved Portugal, and wrote a book glorifying this “land of dreams and poetry”. He loved to bellow popular French tunes, especially Rina Ketty’s “J’attendrai,” a tender love song that became a hymn to peace in the changing context of war. And Sousa Mendes loved his mistress, who was five months pregnant with his 15th child. He found something to laugh about, family members remember, even in the worst of times. But now, faced with the most devastating decision of his life, he had shut himself off. He refused to leave his room, not even to eat. “The situation here is terrible,” the 54-year-old diplomat wrote to his brother-in-law, “and I’m in bed having a serious nervous breakdown.”
The seeds for the collapse of Sousa Mendes had been sown a month earlier, when Hitler launched his invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. Within weeks, millions of civilians were driven from their homes, desperate to stay ahead of the advancing German army. A Red Cross representative in Paris called it “the biggest civilian refugee problem in French history”. New York Times correspondent Lansing Warren, who was later arrested by the Nazis, telegraphed home: “There’s never been such a thing. In a country already filled with evacuees from the war zones, half the population of Paris is ambushed. region, much of Belgium, and ten to twelve departments of France, somewhere between 6 and 10 million people in total, along the roads in private cars, in lorries, on bicycles and on foot.”
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Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)