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'One of the most authentic symbols of . . . human compassion.' : 45-Year Drive Clears Portugal Holocaust Hero's Name

March 22, 1988|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

His father, in the summer of 1940, had paid a heavy price for following the call of humanity during inhuman times.

The transgression of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, then Portuguese consul to Bordeaux, was to issue exit visas--against direct orders of his government--to thousands of Jews who were trying to leave France ahead of the Nazi occupation. Mendes was called back to Lisbon, stripped of his diplomatic title and forced into retirement without compensation, dying a pauper in 1954.

And so Sebastian Mendes began his struggle to clear his father's name. He wrote letters, articles and even a book, which he published himself. He called politicians and told his story to anyone who would listen.

It took most of a lifetime. But, at last, Sebastian Mendes, now 64 and a retired postal worker living in Saugus, is enjoying the rewards of his obsession.

News of the victory came in a telephone call from a brother in Portugal. On Friday, his brother said, the National Assembly unanimously adopted a bill posthumously reinstating Aristides Mendes to full rank in the consular corps.

In his still-thick Portuguese accent, Sebastian Mendes said he felt "like they say, exhilarated."

"I just feel very happy that I can now sleep in peace because what I started 45 years ago has finally been successful."

On Monday, a Portuguese official in Washington confirmed the report. Luis de Sousa, press officer for the Portuguese Embassy, translated from an effusive editorial in the Lisbon daily, Diario de Noticias.

"It was the duty of a democracy toward the man who constitutes one of the most authentic symbols of the generosity, tolerance and human compassion of the Portuguese spirit," the newspaper said. "He had already been rehabilitated in our hearts, but this formal rehabilitation was overdue and an imperative of our country."

That's exactly what Sebastian Mendes had thought in 1943, the year he and his older brother, Carlos, abandoned their homeland to join the U.S. Army. Both claimed American citizenship, having been born in Berkeley during their father's U.S. tour of duty.

After the war, Sebastian visited his parents a last time before their deaths (his mother died in 1948), then ventured to the United States, where he found little interest in his story of European intrigue.

In the intervening years, historians of the Holocaust documented his father's story. They estimate that the man, whose full name was Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches, working with his wife and children in a three-day marathon of visa writing, provided for the escape of as many as 30,000 refugees, at least 10,000 of them Jewish.

Historian Yehuda Bauer called the effort "perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust." Israel in 1967 paid tribute to De Sousa Mendes.

Virtually Forgotten

But the name was virtually forgotten in Portugal, where Antonio Salazar, the dictator who had condemned the diplomat to disgrace, held power until his death in 1970.

Under pressure from the 14 Mendes children, then scattered around the world, a new democratic government rising from revolution in 1974 investigated the story.

A meticulously documented report of the Foreign Ministry concluded in 1976 that De Sousa Mendes was illegally stripped of his standing and recommended reinstatement.

No action was taken, however, until about two years ago, when Portuguese newspapers began to clamor for action and several U.S. congressmen pressed Portuguese officials.

Last May, Portuguese President Mario Soares, on a trip to Washington, bestowed Portugal's Order of Liberty Medal on De Sousa Mendes. That left the memory of Sebastian's father in a new kind of limbo--honored but not yet restored.

Now, "I don't have to do anything," Sebastian Mendes said Monday, "and I hope my parents are happy with me."

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