What was Aristides de Sousa Mendes’s Act of Conscience?

Aristides de Sousa Mendes’s act of conscience consisted in defying the direct orders of his government and exhibiting courage, moral rectitude, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice by issuing visas to all refugees regardless of nationality, race, religion or political opinions.

Knowing he would face harsh consequences for his actions, Sousa Mendes decided to act in accordance with the dictates of his conscience and Catholic faith.

Rabbi Kruger and Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Rabbi Chaim Kruger and
Aristides de Sousa Mendes, 1940

For this adherence to his sense of humanity, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was rendered helpless in a society which no longer recognized his diplomatic status and forbade him from practicing law to earn a decent living and support his family. He spent the rest of his life pleading his case and being ignored time and again by the Portuguese dictator Salazar and his political machine.

The only help he received was from the Judaic Association of Lisbon, which fed the Sousa Mendes family in its soup kitchen and paid their medical bills.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes died on April 3rd, 1954 in poverty and disgrace, at the Franciscan Hospital in Lisbon. He was buried in a Franciscan tunic for lack of appropriate clothes of his own. Even until this bitter end, Aristides de Sousa Mendes knew that he acted humanely on behalf of thousands of innocent people and stood by his decision to save their lives.

“I could not have acted otherwise, and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love.”
- Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Though the exact number of visas signed by Sousa Mendes is unknown, there is evidence to indicate it was many thousands. That number was even further amplified thanks to three consular officials who chose to follow Sousa Mendes rather than obey orders from Salazar.

Manuel de Vieira Braga, the consular secretary in Bayonne, issued hundreds of visas, no questions asked, to the long line of refugees lined before the consulate for days. (His superior explicitly refused to participate even after a personal visit by Sousa Mendes from Bordeaux.)

Emile Gissot, the honorary vice-Consul in Toulouse, directed refugees to the Dutch consulate to obtain visas for Curaçao, thereby enabling Gissot to grant “legitimate” transit visas to Portugal, but he also issued visas without this cover.

José de Seabra, the consular secretary in Bordeaux, should also be recognized for standing by Sousa Mendes and helping him issue many more visas than he would have been able to without his help.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was inspired by Rabbi Chaim Kruger, who refused to accept the visa offered to him until all of the Jewish refugees in Bordeaux were able to escape. Rabbi Kruger’s role in collecting passports and delivering them in batches enabled Sousa Mendes to issue the visas faster and more efficiently. His commitment and courage remain an inspiration.

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