Who was this Portuguese consul who saved thousands of lives in 1940, honored at Guéret (Creuse)?

Aristides de Sousa Mendez was forgotten by history, and his people denied what he had done. Then history rediscovered it, giving it to posterity… for precisely what he did.
Aristides Souza Mendes saved tens of thousands of lives in May and June 1940 by offering a way out to refugees, especially Jews, fleeing the advancing German army. Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux, he presented the documents to everyone who requested them. The Grand Guéret Multimedia Library dedicates an exhibition to it from Tuesday 8 November to 26 November.
Sociologist Manuel Dias Vas helped assemble the exhibited material that sheds new light on this righteous journey among the nations.

Can you explain to us in a few sentences who Aristides de Sousa Mendes was?
This man faced the tragedy of war. Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux, he encountered thousands of refugees who arrived in the area between April and June 1940. Foreigners of course, but also many French! They needed help. So de Souza Mendes issued 32,000 visas against his government’s orders. The Portuguese power did not want to displease Hitler. The consul decided to rescue these exiles. While six million men and women were in Bordeaux, led by Debachel, Portugal, a rare neutral country, was a precious hope. Aristides de Sousa Mendez was finally convicted in his country and ended his life in misery and indifference.

“It has been a forty-year battle for this man to be recognized!”

So his story has been partially forgotten?
Not “partially” but completely forgotten! France entered into complete denial of reality. Rehabilitation was a real and long battle! 35 years ago, it would have been impossible to touch on the topic here. The conclusion of the exhibition deals with this topic. Israel awarded him the title Righteous Among the Nations in 1966. In the United States in the 1970s, the first honors came from his family and a few people who were saved. Then it was tied: the creation of the Sosa Mendez National Committee was followed by a tribute from the European Parliament. The French Pantheon welcomed him among the other righteous. His entry into the Portuguese Pantheon in Lisbon gives some form of conclusion to this process. It has been a forty-year battle to get to know this man!

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How is this exhibition organized?
The exhibition is not only for the Consul. There is also the tale of the tragedy of exile. The story consists of twenty paintings. It all begins with preparations for war, the arrival of Hitler and the first refugees from Northern Europe. They fled to Morocco and Portugal. Petain’s seizure of power represents another turning point. But the heart of the exhibition actually recalls the refugee drama and the organization of cities such as Bordeaux, Bayonne or Hendaye that have seen their population double or even triple with these arrivals. It is important to talk about these exiles because they forget that a country is in denial. This subject is characterized by the basic need of humanity.

La Creuse is one of the sections where most Jews were saved during World War II: myth or reality?

The Media Library will screen “The Legacy of Aristides” on November 18th. Can you tell us about this documentary?
Produced by Limoges: Pyramide Production! Director Patrick Serandi explores French and Portuguese memories in parallel. From the testimonies of some “loyal” people who are still alive, we understand what is left of this man. His work is still in people’s minds at the time.

What is the reaction from the audience so far?

Returns marked with great passion! I saw people crying and telling me, “This is what my grandmother went through: this great exile.” I was also able to notice a lot of sentiment in the Parisian Jewish community. Some saw pictures of their ancestors who did not survive … In Bordeaux, many children came to see the exhibition. They made contact with Ukrainian refugees! Migration is part of history, even today.

Justin Grolier

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About the Author: Germano Álvares

"Desbravador de cerveja apaixonado. Álcool alcoólico incurável. Geek de bacon. Viciado em web em geral."

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