July 19 - Happy Birthday, Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Posted on July 19, 2020

There are times when a law is very bad, and you should break it. There are times when a direct order from someone in charge is very bad, and you should disobey it.

There are times when a government is awful, and you should resist it.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was brave enough to stand up against a bad order from a bad government!

Sousa Mendes was an ambassador of sorts - what was known as the consul general - representing Portugal in the French city of Bordeaux during World War II. 

The bad government was Protugal's Estado Novo, which was a lot like fascism (although claiming to be anti-Nazi) and was definitely anti-democratic. The Estado Novo had been developed by the autocratic and authoritarian "Prime Minister" António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled from 1932 to 1968.

The bad order, "Circular 14," dictated that any war refugees that Estado Novo considered "inconvenient or dangerous" - including Jews fleeing the Nazis - couldn't be issued visas to enter Portugal without some major hoop-jumping. 

And if there's one thing that Jews trying to escape Nazi's didn't have, it was time for hoop-jumping!

Sousa Mendes disobeyed Circular 14 and gave Jews visas because, he said, the order was racist and inhumane. 

(He was right.)

Other Portuguese consuls apparently also disobeyed; there is some evidence that Sousa Mendes urged other consuls to disobey, although there may have been some who did so without urging. The Sousa Mendes Foundation, which is run by descendants of people the consul saved, say that he is responsible for saving the lives of around 30,000 refugees - including 10,000 Jews!

(That number is disputed by some historians.)

In 1988, Sousa Mendes was finally recognized as a hero by the Portuguese government (once the Carnation Revolution toppled the Estado Novo!). A couple of decades before that, Sousa Mendes was honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Israel.

Sousa Mendes's abandoned home, in Portugal, may be
turned into a museum that would share his story.

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