Why do we know the name Oskar Schindler and not Aristides de Sousa Mendes? Portuguese friends say “because he’s Portuguese” but nationality doesn’t make you more or less a better film character. And that’s why we know Schindler.
Sousa Mendes was born into an aristocratic family in 1885, in Cabanas de Viriato, Carregal do Sal, Viseu. His father had been a judge and his mother was the granddaughter of the Viscount of nearby Midões. Thus Sousa Mendes and his family owned this sensational mansion which becomes the focal point for Sousa Mendes’ story.
Aristides studied law at Coimbra University and began a diplomatic career which took him and his family from Africa, to Brazil, the US and Belgium. At the outbreak of WW2 Sousa Mendes was the consul general at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux.
So far, Bordeaux had been an undemanding post and Sousa Mendes, his wife Angelina and their 14 kids lived a comfortable expat life. But almost instantly the war brought tens of thousands of refugees to the south of France, looking for a way out.
Salazar was wary of admitting large numbers of refugees, especially anyone from communist Russia – he hated communism. In 1939, Portugal’s visa policy order was that no visas were to be given to Jews, stateless people, political dissidents or to people who could not return to their homes voluntarily (who inevitably might become permanent residents). The policy was not dissimilar to that of Britain and the US at the time: there were refugee quotas and limits on who they would take, and how many. Even the newly created Jewish-Palestinian state strictly limited immigration.
Already Sousa Mendes must have realised that there was going to be a major problem. He could see there was a chasm between the urgent reality in Bordeaux and the blind bureaucracy in Lisbon. Hundreds of people queuing at the door, desperate, pleading people, those who had seen first hand what the Nazis were doing in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. He issued visas.
After the invasion of France & Holland in May 1940, the situation became much worse. The wait to get into the consulate extended into days, with people not eating or sleeping for fear of losing their place in line. And now the orders from Salazar were upgraded. All visa applications had to have prior approval from Lisbon. It spelt delay and doubt for the refugees.
So Sousa Mendes found himself between a rock and a hard place. He put in a plea to Salazar challenging the regulation and defending the granting of visas on humanitarian grounds (Aristides’ twin brother was foreign affairs minister – it’s not like Salazar could ignore him). He sent visas for approval which were refused. Salazar demanded that he obey orders. The tension increased further a month later when Spain changed its “neutrality” to “non-belligerency”, giving everyone reason to believe Portugal would be invaded or at least the passage to safety would close.
Thus we come to the climax of the story. Sousa Mendes is sick with bad conscience. While in Belgium, he had become close friends with a Rabbi and his family who were now living at the consulate. When offered a visa by Sousa Mendes, the Rabbi had refused it because he could not “leave his people behind”.
Yet disobeying orders meant certain personal disaster for Sousa Mendes, and for his wife and 14 children.
After three days in bed, Aristides de Sousa Mendes goes to the consulate entrance to announce his decision. He will issue visas to everyone who asks for them, free of charge if necessary, because his conscience commands it of him. He will not let these people die. The consequences be damned!
Aristides, the consulate aids, the Rabbi and a couple of the Mendes family start a marathon of visa-signing that lasts three days and nights, without stopping. They short cut the procedure with abbreviated signatures, making one visa cover an entire family and with the Rabbi ferrying passports from the street to the office rather than everyone having to get to the desk.
Then they moved on to Bayonne, where Sousa Mendes’ consular colleague was not issuing visas, and they set up an assemble line there. Some say he signed visas in his car, on the street and in his hotel room.
By now Salazar has sent orders for him to stop and return to Portugal, which he evaded by moving between Spanish border posts ensuring that his visas were being honoured. At one where they had phoned the Spanish consul and were refusing to let people through, Aristides directed the refugees to another post without a phone and personally escorted them into Spain. At other border posts he took people in his diplomatic car across the border, in one case even raising the barrier himself. Back in Bordeaux and officially stripped of his diplomatic powers, he kept signing visas from his apartment.
Three weeks after the orders were issued recalling him, he returned to Portugal (still signing visas along the way).
Between November 1939 and July 1940, Aristides de Sousa Mendes signed 30,000 visas. It is estimated he saved the lives of more than 12,000 Jews.
Stripped of his diplomatic status, barred from practicing law and publicly disgraced, Sousa Mendes was prevented from ever working again. Financially crippled, having been denied a pension, Salazar’s orders prevented any institution or individual to support the family. Colleagues, friends and relatives distanced themselves for fear of falling under the shadow of official disgrace. His children were denied opportunities like university or promotions. Sousa Mendes had a stroke in 1945, his wife died in 1948 and he himself died in 1954.
Meanwhile Salazar received credit for Portugal’s benevolence towards refugees, especially Jews, during the war.
The Jews caught up with Sousa Mendes in 1966 by honoring him as a “Righteous Among the Nations”. More than 20 years later, Portugal finally dismissed the charges against him, restored his diplomatic status and paid compensation to his family.
So, back to the movie. In crude mathematical terms, Sousa Mendes is 30 times the hero that Schindler was. His proximity to the Nazis and his dubious moral position does give the Schindler character the dramatic edge, and his age (he was 35 at the peak of his story, 1943) and his infamous charm meant that he could be played by an A-list spunk like Liam Neeson. But the same could be done for Sousa Mendes: at 54, George Clooney could play him because, despite being married (so was Schindler) he was, rumour be told, quite the ladies man. And with 15 children (one born to a French girlfriend), rather virile.
The problem comes, I believe, in the climax of the story. Neeson and Kingsley only have 1,100 names to write for The List, and that’s not nearly as demanding of screen time as 30,000 visa signatures. 72 hours of climatic deskwork… could be tedious, although the run from Bordeaux to Bayonne, to Hendaye and Irun while pursued by Portuguese secret police would make an excellent bit of film.
And there’s the house. The story starts and ends here with this magnificent mansion. The Sousa Mendes family is still battling to save this palacete so it can become a museum. What? He doesn’t even have a museum? Was there ever a man in Portugal whose name should be remembered more than Aristides de Sousa Mendes?
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