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Helped Thousands of Jews Escape Nazis : Family's Long Quest Ends Historical Exile for Hero

October 05, 1986|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Retired postal worker Sebastian Mendes of Saugus received a telephone call recently that signaled the fulfillment of an aching goal that has possessed him and his brothers and sisters most of their lives.

Theirs was a quest for honor that spanned four decades and followed the children of a Portuguese diplomat as they dispersed throughout the world after World War II. Today, five are dead; the remaining nine are growing gray with age.

They have waited and worked a lifetime for what they sought: the vindication of their father's slandered name.

The call last month brought word from a congressman's office in Washington that they had got it. The Portuguese government had agreed--after 46 years--to repudiate its condemnation of their father as an insubordinate bureaucrat and, instead, to honor him as a hero of the Holocaust.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches was the Portuguese consul to Bordeaux who defied his own country's orders in 1940 and granted passage out of France to thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Some historians have compared his efforts to those of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

De Sousa Mendes paid dearly for his insubordination. Thrown out of the foreign service in disgrace, he died a pauper while the dictator he had disobeyed let others take credit for his good deeds.

Although the rest of the world eventually acknowledged De Sousa Mendes as the proper hero, the government of Portugal never formally erased the taint from his name. But that soon will change, thanks in part to the intercession of several members of Congress.

To celebrate their success, Sebastian Mendes and as many as three of his brothers will gather Oct. 20 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in West Los Angeles in a ceremony that will bring together some of the growing circle of friends who helped them.

Four in California

The Mendes brothers expected to attend were among several of the diplomat's children who, dispossessed in their homeland, scattered to Belgium, Canada and the United States. Four settled in California, raised families, worked at careers, mourned the death of brothers and sisters and finally came to retirement age.

They never forgot.

At first they had used whatever small and ineffective devices they could muster from halfway around the world to rattle Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's regime, usually by asking local newspapers to print their story. This accomplished little.

"As long as Salazar was in power, nothing could be done," said the 10th of those children, Sebastian Mendes, 62.

He and his brother Carlos, 64, of Los Angeles had done nothing to ingratiate themselves with that regime. Both were Americans, having been born in Berkeley during their father's tour as consul there. In 1943, they abandoned neutral Portugal to join the American Army for the European invasion.

Unfriendly Reception

After the war, Sebastian Mendes said, he traveled to Portugal briefly for a last visit with his parents, then ventured to America, where he discovered that his accounts of his father, steeped in European intrigue and retribution, found a no more receptive audience than did his thick accent.

In the 1950s, Sebastian Mendes wrote his father's story in a book, "How a Portuguese Hero Saved Thousands of Jews During World War II."

The book told a story that, although not widely known, has since been confirmed by historians of the Holocaust and Portuguese diplomatic papers.

It begins in Bordeaux in June, 1940, when frantic Jews and other refugees were streaming to the south of occupied France away from the Nazis. Their goal was Lisbon. As the Portuguese consul, De Sousa Mendes found thousands of people seeking visas to cross Franco's Spain on the escape route across the Pyrenees.

Requests for visas were supposed to be cleared by wire through the Portuguese national police, the PIDE. But, according to a later foreign ministry investigation, applicants "waited in vain" for clearance "unless they had to do with individuals of 'pure race' or blue blood . . . in which case the permits came quickly."

Order From the Dictator

Dictator Salazar had decided to stop issuing visas to Jews, according to the 1976 report of the foreign ministry.

Faced with this moral crisis, De Sousa Mendes chose conscience over obedience. He began issuing visas on demand to all refugees.

In his book "The Redemption of the Unwanted," historian Abram L. Sachar described the ordeal this led to: "Both the streets around the consul's headquarters and around his home were overflowing with families who clamored for exit visas. De Sousa Mendes took as many into his home as could be accommodated until all rooms, staircases, floors and the roof and basement could hold no more.

"There De Sousa Mendes, his wife and children . . . all helped to prepare the scores of visas which De Sousa Mendes stamped hour by hour through three days until exhaustion compelled him to pause for rest."

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