The name Aristedes de Sousa Mendes may not mean a great deal to many people, but to the estimated 30,000 refugees he helped flee France during World War II, it is a name which will not be forgotten.
The decided to pay homage to Sousa Mendes, Consul-General of the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux during the German invasion of France in 1940 with an exhibit running through April 3 telling of his humanitarian efforts.
With many Jews, Russians and other refugees becoming trapped within French borders, Sousa Mendes proved to be a lifesaver to these and others who otherwise would have been killed by the Axis Powers.
Undermining the stance of strict neutrality Portugal had taken during the war, Sousa Mendes risked his life to smuggle Jewish and Romani refugees into his country by issuing them visas free of charge over a period of a few days.
For his actions “against” the Portuguese government, Sousa Mendes was labeled an outcast by Portuguese society, and was stripped of his diplomatic credentials.
Further, Sousa Mendes’ story was suppressed under the fascist dictatorship in Portugal until after the war ended.
When asked why he braved such actions, Sousa Mendes replied by giving an example: “Within days of the new orders,” quotes the Jewish Virtual Library, “Sousa Mendes was taken to task for having granted a visa to a Viennese refugee, Professor Arnold Wizrntzer. Called to task by his superiors, Sousa Mendes answered, ‘He informed me that, were he unable to leave France that very day, he would [have been] interned in a concentration camp, leaving his wife and minor son stranded. I considered it a duty of elementary humanity to prevent such an extremity’.”
Denied even a mention in European – let alone Portuguese – history books, Sousa Mendes and his family were ostracized from Portuguese society.
Sousa Mendes’ story might have been lost had it not been for one of the refugees he helped to save, a 7 year old boy whose daughter, Olivia Mattis, is now the curator of the exhibit.
It was this level of elementary humanity which led Mineola Memorial to feel honored to do its part to keep Sousa Mendes’ tale alive.
“It’s a shame when people are punished for being human, for caring," one elderly Jewish man who claimed to have lost a sister in the Holocaust said, “but it makes it all the more rewarding when we see people, despite the consequences show such bravery.”