If Schindler’s List is known all over the world, then the sacrifice of Aristides de Sousa Mendes is much less: Bordeaux dedicates an exhibition to its Portuguese consul, the “forgotten” hero of June 1940, who saved thousands of refugees from war by distributing it. Precious visas.
Consul in the Resistance Relives the “courageous deed” of a senior civil servant, an “ardent Catholic” whose “moral values were stronger than orders,” summarizes Laurent Vedrine, chief curator of the Museum, as we celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first publication of Anne Frank’s Diary25 June 1947.
Save 30,000 people thanks to his visas
In June 1940, despite the instructions of dictator Antonio Oliveira Salazar, banning entry into Portugal for foreign “Jews” without a “pathological” and “stateless” reason, he distributed entry visas to refugees of any nationality or religion. As a result, more than 30,000 people were saved, including 10,000 Jews. A disobedience earned him the expulsion of Portuguese society.
He was dismissed from his post after a disciplinary trial, and died in 1954 in poverty in a Lisbon hospital at the age of 69. “He died alone, and died above all in oblivion,” confirms Laurent Vedrine.
Sometimes compared to the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who kidnapped hundreds of Jews from deportation, Aristides de Souza Mendes suffers from a belated rehabilitation. It was recognized in 1966 as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Then in Portugal, 20 years later, he was awarded the Cross of Merit before entering the National Pantheon in October 2021.
Thanks to several documentary funds, the museum traces these crucial weeks in Bordeaux after the invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France by Germany, on May 10, 1940. As 4 million people throw themselves on the roads of exile, thousands looking to flee Europe flock to Bordeaux as the government withdrew. French on June 14.
“Race Against Time”
Chaos and then his meeting with Rabbi Krueger, who had left Poland, provoked Sousa Mendes. Torn between the duty of obedience and the duty of humanity, he would lock himself out for three days before making the decision to disobey,” says Laurent Vedrine.
At the entrance to the gallery, the “Candelabra,” a metal video sculpture in the shape of a candlestick, symbolizes this inner dilemma. In the work, designed by artist Werner Klots on the idea of Sebastian Michael Mendes, the consul’s grandson, screens scroll through images that may have tormented the consul, a father of 15 children – his family, his career, and refugees – while the soundtrack sings the titles that Sesame has earned. “In the end, he signs them on a corner of the table on Baiyun Street, it’s a race against time,” the museum’s chief curator recalls.
“A brave act of putting on a tampon.”
Between old newspapers and pictures of the Pont de Pierre over the tide-swept Garonne River, objects on loan from the Sousa Mendes Foundation immerse the visitor in these life snippets: a Dutch refugee teddy bear, consul-stamped passports, yellow stars…
Like the descendants of other visa recipients scattered around the world, Jennifer Hartog learned of what Susa Mendes had done only in late 2013, thanks to the foundation’s identification work. “They didn’t know that Souza Mendes was doing a brave job by wearing a tampon,” said a Canadian whose family had moved while fleeing the Netherlands.
His cousin Beatrice Broome of Jerusalem tried to learn about his mother’s journey. But she simply said: We were lucky.
A story that resonates with the war in Ukraine
Since then, the invasion of Ukraine has given new echoes to the rebel consul’s journey, a “global paradigm” because “there are still refugees fleeing the war, and brave men and women who help them in taking risks and perils,” asserts Gerald Mendes’ grandson who lives in Montpellier.
“This exhibition builds a bridge between the past and the present, asking us about refugee reception and concepts of disobedience and civic action,” adds Laurent Vedrine.
“Consul in the Resistance” until October 2 At the Aquitaine Museum.