Diplomatic Impunity The UN Honors a Diplomat Long Ignored by His Own Country

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    John Paul Abranches, 69, a retired architectural draftsman from California, came to New York last week to attend a ceremony at the United Nations honoring his father on the anniversary of his death. A Portuguese consul in France at the outbreak of World War II, his father had executed what one historian calls "the biggest rescue operation carried out by a single person during the Holocaust." Yet he died in utter obscurity and disgrace, and if it weren't for his children, the world still might not know what he did.

    Certainly not from the French, who forgot all about him, or from the Portuguese government, which for decades consciously disappeared him from history.

    In May 1940, British and French defenses in northern Europe collapsed, and the German army, which had already crushed Eastern Europe, began to close a fist on France. A tide of refugees?from Belgium and Holland, Paris and Warsaw and Riga, many Jewish?flooded into the south of France, hoping to cross into Spain and from there into Portugal, a neutral country with Atlantic ports. In Portugal they could get exit visas and sail out of harm, mostly to the U.S. and Canada, some to South America and Africa.

    In Bordeaux, one of the last major French cities before the Spanish border, thousands of refugees stormed the Portuguese consulate. Consul-General Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches (commonly referred to as Sousa Mendes), a lawyer by training and a career diplomat, a high-born conservative Catholic who'd fathered 14 kids (two died young), was running the consulate.

    Abranches was eight years old in the fall of 1939 when his father decided it was time to send the children from Bordeaux back to Portugal. "I remember seeing tanks and army trucks in the neighborhood of the consulate and in the square at the end of the block. Soldiers, a lot of refugees. But I didn't know what that was all about, and my father would not tell me. I was a kid, why scare me? And he had better things to do."

    Remaining in Bordeaux with his wife and two of his older sons, Sousa Mendes turned his attention to the refugees. Though Portugal was officially neutral, Salazar was beholden to both Hitler and his fascist neighbor Franco. He issued orders forbidding visas to "stateless persons" and "Jews expelled from the countries of their nationalities or those from whence they issue"?practically speaking, all refugees. Sousa Mendes refused, and began to hand out visas to refugees indiscriminately, as fast as they could be produced, at the office, in his car, on the sidewalk, with all fees and a waiting period waived.

    "My father knew those instructions from Salazar were unconstitutional, illegal and inhumane, and he would not be able to comply," Abranches says. "He felt his religion would not allow it. It's not that you'd have to be Catholic, it's just the principles with which you were brought up. You have to have moral courage. That's all it took."

    It's estimated that in three months Sousa Mendes issued visas for 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, many of whom would certainly have died had they not escaped France. Moreover, the exit route he set up stayed in place after his personal visa mill was shut down, and may have helped another million people get away.

    "The Spanish noticed the great numbers of refugees passing through Spain to Portugal," Abranches says. "Franco complained to Salazar, and Salazar apparently told Franco that the consul in Bordeaux went bananas and was giving visas away to everybody."

    From Bordeaux, Sousa Mendes followed the flow of refugees to Bayonne, and found the city bursting with maybe 25,000 refugees, including a huge throng blocking the streets outside the Portuguese consulate, which was under Sousa Mendes' jurisdiction. The street was so crowded he had to go into the building next door, cross from roof to roof, and enter the consulate that way. By this point he was so rushed that instead of trying to issue proper visas he was passing out strips of paper that declared: The Portuguese government requests of the Spanish government the courtesy of allowing the bearer to pass freely through Spain. He is a refugee from the European conflict en route to Portugal. "He'd stamp it with the Portuguese seal and sign his name," Abranches says. He shows me examples of the signature: early on, it's the full name, but toward the end it's a hasty scrawl.

    Proceeding to the border crossing, Sousa Mendes found that the Spanish guards had been instructed to treat all visas issued by the Bordeaux and Bayonne consulates as illegal. Gathering a large group of refugees, he took them a few miles along the border to a simple country crossing, manned by a lone guard without a telephone. Sousa Mendes easily brazened his way past the guard, personally shepherding the refugees to safety. Abranches can remember his father driving up to the family's country home outside Lisbon with his last load of refugees, including the prime minister of Belgium and a few of his ministers with their families, who would temporarily bunk in the family home. (Sousa Mendes had also helped Austria's Catholic Empress Zita and her son Otto von Habsburg, targeted for death by Hitler, to escape.)

    In Lisbon, Sousa Mendes was instantly fired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stripped of his pension and blackballed by the Salazar government. No mention of his humanitarian act, not a footnote in a history book, was allowed in Portugal for decades. "There was so much hate for what my father did, so much fear of Hitler, and so much sympathy for the fascists," Abranches says. Not able to practice law?unable to find work of any sort?Sousa Mendes slid into poverty and depression. Abranches paints a forlorn portrait of him spending his afternoons out behind the house, aimlessly gardening. Eventually they lost the home, and Abranches remembers a series of always smaller and poorer apartments in worse and worse neighborhoods of Lisbon, the last a dark basement that flooded when it rained.

    Sousa Mendes continued for years to sue the government for redress. He went to see the Cardinal of Lisbon; the two of them and Salazar had been university pals. The Cardinal, Abranches says, simply suggested he pray to Our Lady of Fatima. (As it happens, Sousa Mendes was a friend of Lucy Dos Santos, one of the three Portuguese children to whom the Virgin had appeared in 1917.) As a boy of 13 and 14 Abranches would personally courier his father's petitions to various government ministers, who would throw them in the trash. He says only the Jewish community in Lisbon came to his father's aid. They helped him pay rent, buy food, put the youngest kids through school.

    Sousa Mendes' wife died in 1948; he died penniless in 1954, in a Franciscan-run poorhouse. Abranches, meanwhile, had come to America in 1950, joining other siblings and relatives here. His siblings, especially a sister living in New York, kept up the pressure to have their father's work remembered, collecting stories from survivors he'd helped to escape. In 1966, Israel's Yad Vashem named him one of the "Righteous Among the Nations." It took another 22 years of pressure before the Portuguese government grudgingly awarded Sousa Mendes a full rehabilitation. The family has put a recent lump-sum payment of restitution from the government toward rehabbing the country home outside Lisbon, which has fallen into ruin, with plans to open it as a museum. In France, Sousa Mendes' name was forgotten for decades, though recently Bordeaux put up a bust. The History Channel will air a documentary on him this summer.

    Last week the UN opened an exhibit, "Visas for Life," applauding more than 80 diplomats who showed what the rest of us might consider un-diplomat-like courage in opposing the Nazis. They range from the well-known Raoul Wallenberg to formerly less celebrated names like Sousa Mendes and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese embassy official in Lithuania who was fired and disgraced for issuing transit visas to Jews. The exhibit is up through April 28. (For information, call 963-5931 or 963-6923.)