CABANAS DE VIRIATO, Portugal – The grand old house that lies in ruins at the corner of this tiny village speaks volumes of the tragic fate that befell its once illustrious owner.
And to what did the diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a member of Portugal’s aristocracy and brother of its foreign minister, owe his devastating fall from grace? One simple crime: his decision, against his government’s orders, to issue visas to fellow Europeans desperately seeking refuge from the Nazis.
Through this act of defiance, Sousa Mendes saved the lives of an estimated 30,000 individuals, among them more than 10,000 Jews. But he also died a destitute man, stripped of all titles and assets, shunned by society.
A temporary exhibit now open on the premises of the Sousa Mendes family property is part of an effort, more than 70 years after the fact, to pay tribute to this relatively unknown Portuguese diplomat who single-handedly, and at considerable risk to himself and his family, undertook perhaps the greatest act of rescue during the Holocaust – far greater in scope, in fact, than that of Oskar Schindler.
The exhibit is the brainchild of Eric Moed, a 25-year-old Brooklyn-based architect whose grandfather and great-grandfather were among those fortunate Jews granted visas by Sousa Mendes – most of them issued during a huge operation that took place at the end of May 1940 while the Spanish border was still open, and refugees could still move freely from France to Spain and from Spain to Portugal.
Consisting of three pavilions constructed of acrylic sheets, this “pop-up” museum, as Moed describes it, contains a timeline of events, headshots of many of those rescued, photocopies of passports, quotes from Sousa Mendes that address his motivations, and testimonials from those he rescued.
Etched into the sides of the pavilions are 30,000 copies of Sousa Mendes’ signature, one for each person saved, as it appeared on the life-saving visas he authorized.
The project was conceived as part of Moed’s senior thesis project at the Pratt Institute, for which he won a 5,000 euro grant from the UNHATE Foundation, a nonprofit run by Benetton that promotes tolerance. The Moed family had been living in Antwerp, Belgium, when the war broke out. Thanks to the visas his great-grandparents and their three children obtained from Sousa Mendes, they were eventually able to flee to the United States.
The exhibit, which was unveiled on June 20, will remain open until the end of the month. “The plan is then to turn it into a traveling exhibit that will be showcased at Holocaust and tolerance museums around the world,” Moed said in a telephone interview from New York.
The Sousa Mendes Foundation, established several years ago by the late diplomat’s descendants and the descendants of those saved by him, eventually plans to restore the entire mansion to its former glory and turn it into a permanent museum of tolerance, dedicated to him and other Holocaust rescuers.
Earlier this month, a group of several dozen individuals rescued by Sousa Mendes and their descendants, including Moed and his grandfather, embarked on a pilgrimage to the mansion, many of them following the routes to Portugal taken more than 70 year ago through France and Spain. Their pilgrimage coincided with the opening of the exhibit at a ceremony also attended by several of Sousa Mendes’ grandchildren.
The Sousa Mendes family mansion, known as the Casa do Passal, is now boarded up, but a peek through the shattered glass windows is enough to reveal its state of decay: Rotting wooden planks are strewn on floors covered with debris and weeds. Some of the outside walls of the four-story building appear to have suffered fire damage. It was in this 1,000-square meter edifice that Sousa Mendes, his wife Angelina and their 14 children, spent their time when they were not stationed overseas.
When World War II broke out, Sousa Mendes - a Catholic - was serving as the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France. In 1940, after France had capitulated to the Nazis, the Portuguese government, which had declared neutrality in the war, ordered its overseas diplomats to deny all requests for visas to those seeking refuge, particularly Jews.
Explaining his decision to defy this order years later, in a quote highlighted in the exhibit, Sousa Mendes said: “I could not differentiate between nationalities. I was obeying the dictates of humanity that distinguish between neither race nor nationality.”
Upon learning of Sousa Mendes’ act of outright disobedience, the Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, had him immediately recalled to Portugal and dismissed from the foreign service. He was also banned from practicing law and died penniless in 1954, all attempts to have his name cleared during his lifetime rebuffed.
In 1966, Sousa Mendes was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, and in 1988 the Portuguese government issued an official apology to him and his family. Because of the family’s huge debts, the house was taken from them after the war, but about 10 years ago, Sousa Mendes’ descendants raised the money to repossess it.
The residents of Cabanas de Viriato clearly take pride in their local hero. His portrait is the first thing to greet visitors entering the village, and the local school is named in his honor. In recent weeks, the villagers have grown accustomed to the rather unusual sight of foreigners, many of them Jewish, suddenly descending on their town searching for the house where Sousa Mendes once lived. It is not uncommon for them to stop whatever they’re doing smack in the middle of the day and lead these visitors to their destination.