That’s what Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portuguese diplomat in France, did during World War II. With a rapidly encroaching Nazi force, killing and imprisoning millions, Sousa Mendes saw the danger. He started granting visas left and right. He enlisted family members and an assembly line. He stamped visas without full background information, on full pieces of paper, and was able to pass off large numbers of families all on one visa. More than 30,000 people were saved through his 3 day effort.
Yet his government stripped him of his position, denied him the right to practice law and ordered that no one should provide him assistance or charity. He was in disgrace — but only governmental disgrace. He was certainly honored from a spiritual and values-driven perspective, which is always the most important.
Later, his honor was restored again, again and again… Visa grantees spoke on his behalf. In 1987, the Portuguese Republic gave him an Order of Liberty medal. He was given the Cross of Merit and an honorary bust was created in Bordeaux, where he issued the visas. In 1995, Portugal created a commemorative stamp. He was honored at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in 2005; was celebrated in events in more than 80 countries; and a virtual museum was just established on his behalf.
Use your life to help others…and there is never a disgrace, only ultimate victory. Justice may be delayed, but is never beaten back. Not only did Aristides de Sousa Mendes affect 30,000 – but now millions through the story of his life. All because of one man’s “frantic assembly line” during World War II…
Aristides de Sousa Mendes (1885-1954) was a Portuguese diplomat. He defied the orders of his own government to aid war refugees in France fleeing from invading Nazi forces in the early years of World War II.
Sousa Mendes and his identical twin, Cesar, were born in the village of Cabanas de Viriato in the northern province of Beira Alta, Portugal. The two pursued law degrees at Coimbra University and entered the diplomatic corps, occupying posts all over the globe. In 1908, Sousa Mendes married his childhood sweetheart, Maria Angelina Ribeiro de Abranches, before entering the Foreign Service in 1910. Sousa Mendes and his wife had fourteen children.
In 1939, Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France. His government had issued strict orders that no Portuguese visas were to be given out to foreigners, the stateless, or Jews expelled from their countries. Despite this, Sousa Mendes went on issuing visas to refugees, while seeking approval from his government. In mid-June, 1940, with the political situation changing rapidly and the Nazi threat approaching, Sousa Mendes, his family and staff formed a frantic assembly line, issuing thousands of visas as rapidly as possible over a three-day period. Sousa Mendes persisted even as orders came from his government to cease. In the end, Sousa Mendes issued over 30,000 visas, enabling thousands to escape the Nazis, likely saving their lives. He sacrificed his own life to this cause, losing his position in 1941 and dying in poverty and disgrace in 1954.
Sousa Mendes has been posthumously recognized by his own country and others for his heroic actions.