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aristides de sousa mendes

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.


aristides left, oskar right

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?




  1. paula April 12, 2012 2:23 am Reply

    Thank you Emma. After your “safe haven: Portugal in WW2” story I knew you would end up telling the story of Aristides Sousa Mendes. And so you did 🙂
    Shame on Portugal that his mansion is left falling apart.

    [Reply to comment]

    Colin   Reply: May 29th, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    Shame indeed!
    A heroic man who should be honoured; a great story; and a wonderful old mansion that MUST be preserved!

    [Reply to comment]

  2. Stef in Lisbon April 12, 2012 3:59 am Reply

    Great article. Thanks. Triggered me in googling his name, shared your link on my wall and my franco Brittish friend mentionned this mini serie on french TV : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZQFjBi7Eio

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  3. Sara April 12, 2012 5:32 am Reply

    Olá Emma,

    I just found your blog and I love it!
    I’m portuguese, I live in Brazil but I’m currently seeking a job in Australia so I can move there for a while. I have always been curious about Australia, as I never heard anyone saying anything bad about it. I’ll go for a short visit next June and I’m very excited about it!!!

    Anyway, the first post I read on your blog was the one about living in Portugal and the things that drive you crazy there. It could have been written by me because I feel the same way! And if you think Portugal is in the 70’s don’t come to Brazil… Brazil is in the 40’s…

    I also enjoy reading other posts. It is fun for me to know the opinion of a foreigner in my country (well… I guess now I’m more foreigner than you in Portugal…).

    Keep writing!


    PS. Would you please please please eat a Pastel de Belém for me? I miss them sooooo much!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: April 12th, 2012 at 7:39 am

    I can’t do a belem, but I’ll do you 2 past de natas tomorrow if you like 🙂

    [Reply to comment]

    Sara   Reply: April 13th, 2012 at 1:34 am

    @Emma, Pastel de nata will do, thanks 😉

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  4. Claudia April 12, 2012 9:06 am Reply

    Love it, love it, love it! Fantastic the way you put it up the all story, plus the pictures. But you never now, you could always send your story to Hollywood. xxxx

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  5. Elsa April 12, 2012 11:58 am Reply

    Like, Like Like….

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  6. Sami April 13, 2012 12:08 am Reply

    I´m so glad that you wrote about Sousa Mendes, Emma!
    He is such a deserving character, even in the United States where most of his descendents live, he was honoured, way before he was honoured in Portugal! Before coming to Australia, I actually lived in a village called “Carregal do Sal” which is 15km from Cabanas de Viriato, and I knew the story well and I´m sad that in the 12 years we lived in Portugal, nothing was ever done to this beautiful house that is falling apart. There are a lot of people involved in a “foundation” to restore it, but bureaucracy and lack of funds (they needed 3million euros to complete the project by 2014) contribute to the project not advancing…

    There is a movie that will be released in the States on 18th April about him http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/237866


    [Reply to comment]

    Marielys   Reply: April 17th, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    @Sami,I was lucky to see that movie here in Brussels. Its well worth seeing it! As it is Emma’s post! Thank you dear Emma for the history and the photos. What a great man he was.

    [Reply to comment]


  7. lynn salt April 13, 2012 3:45 am Reply

    Thanks, and those are AMAZING pictures! each one looks like a window to a virtual reality.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: April 13th, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    thanks, we were there just at the right moment, a slice of sunshine after a long rainy day

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  8. IsabelPS April 13, 2012 3:58 am Reply

    All true heroes say the same thing when confronted with their own bravery: “I could not do otherwise”.

    Aristides de Sousa Mendes knew, of course, he was risking his welfare and the future of his family. But he could not do otherwise.

    No, I don’t think that the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes is Hollywood fodder. He is too great. Only the Ancient Greek would do him justice.

    [Reply to comment]

  9. adi leviatan April 18, 2012 5:46 am Reply

    Hi Emma
    Thank you so much for a story greater than life about a man larger than life. I was never aware of the man and his bravery.
    Realy inspiring
    All the best
    Adi leviatan

    [Reply to comment]

  10. IsabelPS April 20, 2012 8:59 am Reply
  11. Shiralee April 25, 2012 2:30 pm Reply

    Your photoessays are great — thoughtful, well researched and beautifully illustrated. Thanks

    [Reply to comment]

  12. Mariola Stone May 15, 2012 11:30 pm Reply

    Fascinating read, the pictures of the house just make me want to go and explore it. What is the name of the film as I would like to see it?

    [Reply to comment]

  13. joe May 20, 2012 2:18 am Reply

    Emma, love your blog, i am living in Australia, love this country, but i am going back to Portugal, i think you understand… i miss the people, the old towns, the laid back style, the waves.
    It’s good to know someone that it’s in love with that beautiful country. Keep posting!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 22nd, 2012 at 3:33 am

    thanks joe… you didn’t mention the cakes… 🙂

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  14. Amigos de Sousa Mendes July 25, 2012 12:11 am Reply

    See more about Aristides de Sousa Mendes and Cabanas de Viriato in the blog Amigos de Sousa Mendes

    [Reply to comment]


  15. Emma Crabtree November 1, 2012 3:36 am Reply

    Oh, look, there’s a movie http://www.trailers.com.pt/o-consul-de-bordeus/

    Hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

    [Reply to comment]


  16. Jorge Pratas February 5, 2014 6:32 am Reply

    The article suffers from several inaccuracies, to say the least: Sousa Mendes never lost his title as he kept on being listed in the Portuguese Diplomatic Yearbook until 1954 and after the one-year punishment, he ended up never retiring and kept on receiving his full Consul salary, 1,593 Portuguese Escudos, until the day he died. This can be easily checked in the online archives.
    You might want to correct this, unless you want to keep the fairy tale version.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: February 7th, 2014 at 11:42 am

    Yeah… so what? It’s hardly the point of his story. Did Salazar ever recognise what he did? No. The end.

    [Reply to comment]

  17. Jorge Pratas February 5, 2014 6:42 am Reply

    You can verify for yourself.
    Sousa Mendes was generously treated by Portugal. He kept on receiving his full consul salary until the day he died. His files are today available online. You can check it.


    There is also a letter in the Portuguese Bar Association Archives, written by Sousa Mendes where he sais he is receving a 1595$30 monthly salary.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: February 8th, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    @Jorge Pratas, actually Jorge I couldn’t give a toss about what he got or didn’t get as a salary – which I why I spent less than 100 words on the post-bordeaux period. Did this man put his life at risk by saving people? Yes. Should he be as famous as schindler? I think so. Is he more a man than you or I could dream of being? Certainly. Was he a lousy accountant? Who gives a shit.

    [Reply to comment]

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