Words of Remembrance

Words of Remembrance by one of his sons, Luis Filipe de Sousa Mendes

Luis Filipe de Sousa MendesAs requested here are my thoughts and memories about my parents, my brothers and sisters, and my family life style as far back as I can remember and throughout the Bordeaux events and thereafter to the present.

I was born in Tuy, Spain, in 1928, a small, very ancient town on the border between Spain and Portugal. My father was then the Portuguese Consul General in Vigo, the seaport of Galicia. I entered this world into a large family of eleven before me. I am told by my elder brothers and sisters that I was a much awaited baby soon to be spoiled by every member of the household including the very devoted, unforgettable governess Adelaide.

Ahead of me in the family were four girls and seven boys, the eldest of the latter being 19. Born in several countries, at the pace of my father’s career, they had been educated in English and Portuguese. As I grew up I could hear around me a great variety of exotic stories about Zanzibar, Kenya, Brazil and California. Each of my brothers and sisters was conscious about the country of their birth. So there were the Portuguese, the Africans, the Brazilians and the Californians. I was the “Gallego” for Galician, a native of the Spanish province of Galicia.

My father was a genuine Portuguese, proud of his ancestry, a very sociable type of person, very sympathetic to everyone’s problems.

My father was one of a set of identical twins. Their father was a judge of the high court of Beira Alta, one of the northern provinces. Law was the tradition in the family. Aristides and Cesar graduated from the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest universities of Europe. It is from Coimbra also that Oliveira Salazar, the man who would prove so intransigent, so implacable in dealing with my father’s humanitarian action, graduated a few years after Aristides and Cesar, the twins.

Salazar was himself a native of Beira Alta, from a family well acquainted with an aunt of ours.

Aristides and Cesar graduated in 1908, both of them in Law with the same marks. They were absolutely identical and dressed identically. One was optimistic and an extrovert (Aristides), the other pessimistic and an introvert. Their strong resemblance would cause a lot of confusion among their parents and relatives, to their hilarious fun. After practicing Law for a couple of years, they were both admitted to the diplomatic corp. They are both listed in the Portuguese Brazilian Encyclopedia.

Aristides, my father, was a loving husband and father, a generous heart hidden in the appearance of the authority that his position and his features commanded. He was a tall, rather strong bodied person, with a great sense of humor, always finding time for a good joke. His wife, my mother, was very devoted to him, to the children and the other members of the household. From Papa I inherited my love for the Portuguese language. Living in countries other than Portugal it was impractical to receive Portuguese lessons otherwise than at home, and my mother used to make me read the Portuguese Classics and other texts, making me write text analysis and dictation.

Tuy was a charming town where everyone knew each other. For vacations we were all anxious to travel to the ancestral village in the province of Beira Alta, Portugal. In the village of Cabanas de Viriato we had our family estate, the Quinta de Sao Cristovao, with a mixed French and Portuguese-style yellow-colored mansion. The building was topped with red tile, and had a grey slate tiled mansard and a large Portuguese chimney with ubiquitous Portuguese cock on its top. The setting and the scenery were simply gorgeous with the Serra da Estrela, the Star Mountains, the largest and highest chain of mountains in the country, in the background. Our house was a three story building about 60 feet by 120 feet. In the lower floor were the main hall with the family Coat of Arms painted on the ceiling and the imposing stairway bifurcating against a multicolored glass walled gallery, an area for reading and relaxation. Next to the main hall were the playroom, the lower dining room for everyday use, the library and the billiard room with a number of convenience rooms and areas. On the second floor were the main formal dining room with emblazoned, leather backed chairs and china for ceremonious occasions and special guests. On the top floor were all the bedrooms and the prayer room. In Cabanas de Viriato we used to meet our cousins on both Papa’s and Mama’s side.

They were themselves much travelled families with endless exotic, wonderful stories to tell. We were a very happy bunch indeed… We enjoyed a high social status and we lived in great abundance without worries of any sort.

By 1931, my father was appointed to Antwerp, Belgium, as Consul General. This would prove to be one of the most enriching, rewarding assignments of his career. Number 13 of the family, John Paul, was born in Louvain, where the household moved, mainly because of the opportunities offered by this town with its well-known university and other educational institutions. The elder ones were now ready to undertake university courses and degrees while receiving the other facets of a classical education of the times, that is painting and musical instruments. Very often my parents and the rest of the family delighted to listen to our family concerts and recitals. These would take place on Sundays, when the family would receive at home, and not rarely for dinner, our friends. These would come from the Belgian families and student friends, Canadians, Americans, Chinese, Ukrainians, etc., from the university of Louvain. Also, and not the least, friends from college (secondary level) and the friends of numbers 11 through 14, speaking the Flemish dialect. The household was bustling with activity. Papa, of course, as the master, projected the image of an extremely happy, proud, yet always joking person, discussing all the subjects of the day with the young, promising students around him. It was against this background that the clouds were gathering over Europe. We were in the early, mid thirties and the family, like most people, were increasingly conscious about the developing tragedy.

John-Paul, Luis-Filipe and Teresa de Sousa Mendes, 1935

John-Paul, Luis-Filipe and Teresa
de Sousa Mendes, 1935

In 1936 we moved to Antwerp, where we lived on Avenue Rubens, next to Avenue de France, where my father had his office. It was then that his second daughter got married to a Belgian fellow student from the Louvain University.

In Antwerp, Father was also the Dean of the Consular Corps, thus a well-known figure in the city. It was in Antwerp that the family became more and more sensitive to the plight of the Jews in Germany.

Traveling with the family was usually by train which imposed on us a Spartan discipline… It really amounted to moving an army. This is why Papa had a truck converted into a family autocar which he called “Expresso dos Montes Herminios,” the other name of the Star Mountains (Serra da Estrela) after the Greek god Hermes. The family made a number of exhilarating trips across Europe in this autocar, many times to and from Portugal and a couple of times to Germany and Denmark. The brave Danes were obviously not used to seeing such a large family travelling in such a strange vehicle. They consulted for more than an hour with immigration authorities to check whether we were a bunch of potential troublemakers. Finally they let us in to a splendid trip to one of the most interesting countries of Europe.

In 1938, Papa was reassigned, this time to Bordeaux, France. It was with regret that we left Belgium after nearly ten years, leaving behind many friends with whom we keep contact even to the present time. We traveled to Bordeaux in our new custom-made autocar.

In Bordeaux, the family residence was located on the waterfront, Quai Louis XVIII, one floor above the Portuguese Consulate General. This would later have a high significance on the development of events as it became a haven for the refugees fleeing the Nazis. The family enjoyed the city and the southwestern region of France, with its mild sunny weather and many other amenities. I remember the beautiful weekends when we would go out on picnics visiting the chateaux of the region. We were about 18 sitting in the autocar. A frequent guest in these outings was Monsieur Redeuil, an elderly gentleman, 82 at the time. His interest for the Portuguese culture had made of him a habitué of the Portuguese circles of Bordeaux. Being a true Bordelais, he knew the region as no one and he became for us the best guide one could dream of. On arrival at each chateau, and on visiting the caves à vins, my father would introduce his family, including the eldest of his sons, Monsieur Redeuil, making us burst out laughing and making the personnel of the chateau feel quite intrigued.

Nicest among my memories of Bordeaux is the “14 juillet Prise de la Bastille Day,” when my father would participate in the official ceremonies donning his tailcoat, as the representative of Portugal. By then, some of the elder ones had started their own lives either by marrying or undertaking studies in their country. As to the younger ones, we went to the local lycée. I attended the Lycée de Longchamps, Place Michel Montaigne.

In 1939 came the war and my parents decided that the family would be safer in Portugal. Only a few of the elder ones remained with our parents in Bordeaux. We therefore drove back to Portugal in our Expresso dos Montes Herminios. Then came the invasion of Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg and France and the start of what would so adversely influence the course of my family.

Without going into the well-documented events which took place in Bordeaux, I wish to comment on my own relationship with my father during the years after Bordeaux until my departure to Canada.

After the agonizing Bordeaux days, my parents came to the family estate to join us. The family was thus reunited. With us were two or three families of Belgian refugees, who like so many people were not to be granted visas to Portugal. As citizens of an occupied country, Belgium, and unable to produce proof of bookings on any transport means out of Portugal, they were not to be issued visas. Soon word came from Lisbon of my father being fired for his action in Bordeaux. We were all very depressed, yet proud of him and in full solidarity with him and Mother.

From 1940 to 1945 we remained in the country home, hoping for the end of the war and the reinstatement of our father. So anxious were we about the progress of the allied forces and so committed to Victory that two of my brothers joined the US Army in Britain.

It was during these years that I came to know my father best. From him I received an invaluable complement to my classical education including history and mathematics.

Papa always showed a high degree of optimism and he was sure that with victory the government would review his case. He hoped that Salazar, the then-Minister for External Affairs, rather than seeing defiance of received orders, would recognize the humanitarian side of his deed. He did not lose hope despite refusal upon refusal from Salazar, who at the time was also the Prime Minister, the person who sealed my father’s fate.

It was then, at the end of the war, that my father suffered most; his health and my mother’s deteriorated most rapidly. Anxiety and despair filled their hearts while material conditions worsened from year to year, from month to month. Very few were those in his professional circles and among his former friends and relatives who stretched out a supportive, compassionate hand. On the contrary, blame and sarcasm were not uncommon, sometimes from close relatives. Both father and mother suffered in solitude as they witnessed the dispersion of their family.

It was at the end of the war that I worked as secretary to my father. I had learned some typing and I could write his letters to the Government, to the members of the National Assembly, to the Diplomatic Corps in Lisbon, to the head of the Catholic Church and to a number of personalities who were close to Salazar, to earnestly request their support and their influence to bring him to soften his position. I used to accompany him when he was received by members of the Diplomatic Corps who were kindly attentive to his plight. All this in vain, the rock was unshakeable… and our hope fades away… Also, as my parents’ health declined, I acted as their nurse on our doctor’s instructions. All this I did with love and devotion. Mother died in 1948 and Father in 1954.

Following the death of my mother and with my father’s encouragement, I came to Canada to start a new life. An old acquaintance, Monsignor Alphonse-Marie Parent, then Secretary General and later on, Rector of Laval University, offered me his support to take up Engineering. I thus sailed to Montreal in October 1948. Parting with my father was a very painful experience and even more so when I saw him turning away… I kept corresponding with him until his death.

To his last days he remained true to himself, never regretting his altruistic deed. A meaningful trait of his personality was his absolute refusal to receive any monetary compensation from the refugees seeking asylum in Portugal. He was adamant on this point.

In his fight for his reinstatement, he passed the message, an ultimate request, to each one of us to make the truth known someday everywhere that the noble, generous way in which Portugal welcomed the thousands of refugees in June-July 1940, was his own doing by defying orders from a hard-hearted, insensitive man, a dictator in the footsteps of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. My father’s action, unknown to the people of Portugal and to most of the refugees as disobedience, was very well accepted in every Portuguese city, town and village. Everyone tried his best to help and the coming of the refugees ultimately brought only benefits to the country, for the high level of education and for their otherwise great qualities… and it won Portugal international acclaim… and far were the refugees from understanding the unfolding drama around them…

For me, and I know, for each one of my brothers and sisters, he was and is, a hero, a person whose example I wish to follow throughout my life and I am filled with emotion when I talk about him to my children, young adults of today. May this sacrifice of a true Portuguese fidalgo remain a source of inspiration for them as it is for myself.

In Canada, I became an engineer. I got married and together with my wife Ruth, we have raised a family of three, a girl and two boys, young professionals today. We all look forward to attending the posthumous reinstatement and medal award ceremony by the President of the Republic of Portugal, Dr. Mario Soares, due to take place in Washington, DC, next May 19 (1987).

Source: www.saudades.org