A French journalist narrates the little-known story of a Portuguese consul in France who, in 1940, gave visas to more than 10,000 Jews and Gentiles fleeing the Nazi invasion.
Aristide de Sousa Mendes could stand as proof of the cynical truism that no good deed goes unpunished. A career diplomat, Mendes served as Portuguese consul in Bordeaux during WWII. Although historians have routinely praised the Portuguese government’s humane actions during the course of the war (assuming that the flood of refugees admitted into Portugal after the French defeat reflected official policy), the fact was that Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s dictator, did not disapprove of Hitler and didn’t want the refugees. In 1939 he instructed Portuguese diplomats to grant visas only to select individuals approved by him. All obeyed except Mendes, who had 25 years of diplomatic service, 14 children, large debts, and no personal objections to the Salazar regime. When, in May 1940, the trickle of refugees became a flood, he kept his consulate open day and night, recruiting reluctant associates to help write the visas. His infuriated superiors repeatedly complained and ordered him to stop, but he continued. At the end of June, they stripped Mendes of authority and ordered him home. Dismissed from the service, he spent the remaining decade of his life in increasing poverty, pleading in vain for reinstatement. The author does not hide his admiration for Mendes and works hard to document the consul’s heroic deeds and the Portuguese government’s contemptible indifference—but, although he offers some speculation on Mendes’s motives, he never really attempts to explain why the consul felt driven to act as he did. The account takes on a somewhat two-dimensional aspect as a result.
Mendes’s heroism is certainly worth rediscovering, but this is more eulogy than biography.