Portuguese honour a wartime saviour of Jews

Lee Sterling knew that his sister had not survived the harrowing journey that allowed him and his parents to escape Nazism by traveling from Brussels to Lisbon and eventually on to New York. The Portuguese diplomat who saved him, Sousa Mendes, is being honoured for his bravery.

- The New York Times

He was just four years old and is barely able to recall her now, but after consulting Portuguese archives, he found that his sister, Raymonde Estelle, had spent six weeks in a hospital before dying of septicemia, at age seven. “I hadn’t cried in years, but when I found out, I just couldn’t stop,” he said.

Sterling, who lives in California, was among 40 people who made an emotional pilgrimage last month to retrace their families’ pasts. They also wanted to pay homage to the man who saved their lives: Aristides de Sousa Mendes.

Sousa Mendes, Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux when Germany invaded France, provided about 30,000 people with Portuguese visas to escape Nazi persecution, according to the Sousa Mendes Foundation, which is run by descendants of the visa recipients. His status as one of the most important protectors of the Jewish people, if not the precise number of visas, has been confirmed by Yehuda Bauer, a Holocaust historian at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

He issued many of the visas personally and also persuaded some others on the Portuguese diplomatic staff stationed in France to do the same, against the orders of his own government, which was neutral but Fascist. When the government realized the scale of his disobedience, Sousa Mendes was recalled to Lisbon, tried and dismissed from the diplomatic service. Stripped of his pension rights, he died in poverty in 1954.

For his efforts, Sousa Mendes received some acknowledgment after his death, starting with Israel, where the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial honored him as a 'Righteous Among the Nations' in 1966. But the search for those who received his visas or their descendants began in earnest only much more recently, as part of a building campaign to grant him the recognition he deserves, particularly in his own country, where he remains relatively unknown.

FULL STORY Portuguese protetctor of a people is honoured (The New York Times)