A Role Model for Our Times: Aristides de Sousa Mendes, fired for saving thousands of refugees from Nazis

July 1, 2023 by Joshua
in Freedom, Leadership, Models, Nature

Failures of imagination and leadership in sustainability are the hallmarks of our time. They mean that when even sustainably-minded people try to imagine people with political or business authority acting for sustainability, they can’t think past how to make sustainability profitable or get votes.

I’m going to lead CEOs to see themselves as humans first, CEOs second—politicians, journalists, celebrities, and so on too. Oskar Schindler didn’t save those Jews from the Nazis because it was good for business. Robert Carter III didn’t free the most slaves in America before the Civil War “to do well by doing good.” They weren’t used by their businesses to do what the businesses wanted, like more profit by local practices of Nazism and slavery; they used their businesses to do what they want, which was to live as humans with compassion and empathy. They acted by the Golden Rule, unlike American culture today at least regarding how we treat each other mediated through the environment.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes is a role model for our times

I just learned of a man who could have remained a low-level bureaucrat at the dawn of World War II. He could have followed orders. Instead, he broke the rules and disobeyed orders to issue visas to people fleeing the Nazis. He knew he would be punished and was, yet worked hard to save people’s lives. He saved an estimated thousands, many Jews, making him arguably the person who saved the most.

His government, a dictatorship, tried to stop him, but he persisted, persisted, and persisted. He was later disciplined. Others took credit for his work. His reputation has been restored, but we could honor his legacy more by doing today for our problems what he did: not give in but to do what we believe is right, even when it’s hard or **shudder** not profitable. Sadly, Americans can’t see past having to make a profit as a way to act, not realizing acting within the system results in what I call stepping on the gas, thinking it’s the brake, wanting congratulations.

From his Wikipedia page, coming out of a period of despondency from being ordered not to help, quoting his son:

My father got up, apparently recovering his serenity. He was full of punch. He washed, shaved and got dressed. Then he strode out of his bedroom, flung open the door to the chancellery, and announced in a loud voice: ‘From now on I’m giving everyone visas. There will be no more nationalities, races or religions.’ Then our father told us that he had heard a voice, that of his conscience or of God, which dictated to him what course of action he should take, and that everything was clear in his mind.

[the Wikipedia article continues]

His daughter Isabel and her husband Jules strongly opposed his decision, and tried to dissuade him from what they considered to be a fatal mistake. But Sousa Mendes did not listen to them and instead began to work intensively to grant the visas. “I would rather stand with God and against man than with man and against God,” he reportedly explained. He set up an assembly line process, aided by his wife, sons Pedro Nuno and José Antonio, his secretary José Seabra, Rabbi Kruger, and a few other refugees.

Where are such leaders today? I’m going to help make them.

For details, I hope the Sousa Mendes Foundation’s page doesn’t mind my quoting them, and scroll down for a short video.

Who was Aristides de Sousa Mendes?

Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches was one of the great heroes of the Second World War. As the Portuguese consul stationed in Bordeaux, France, he found himself confronted in May and June of 1940 with the reality of many thousands of refugees outside the Portuguese consulate attempting to escape the horrors of the Nazi war machine. These persons were in desperate need of visas to get out of France, and a Portuguese visa would allow them safe passage through Spain to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, where they could find liberty to travel to other parts of the globe.

Portugal, officially neutral, yet unofficially pro-Hitler and under the dictatorial rule of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, issued a directive – the infamous “Circular 14″ – to all its diplomats to deny safe haven to refugees, including explicitly Jews, Russians, and stateless persons who could not freely return to their countries of origin. Aristides de Sousa Mendes’s act of heroism consisted in choosing to defy these inhumane orders and follow his conscience instead. “I would rather stand with God against Man than with Man against God,” he declared.

In all, Sousa Mendes issued thousands of visas during that time, with the period of highest intensity lasting around twelve days, from June 12-23, 1940.  This heroic feat was characterized by the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer as “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”

For his act of defiance Sousa Mendes was severely punished by Salazar, stripped of his diplomatic position and forbidden from earning a living. He had fifteen children, who were themselves blacklisted and prevented from attending university or finding meaningful work. In this way what was once an illustrious and well-respected family – one of the great families of Portugal – was crushed and destroyed. The family’s ancestral home, known as “Casa do Passal,” was repossessed by the bank and eventually sold to cover debts.

Before his death in 1954, Sousa Mendes asked his children to clear his name and have the honor of the family restored. His sons and daughters, along with their children – now scattered all over the globe – have fought for decades to have his deeds posthumously recognized.

The first recognition came in 1966 from Israel, which declared Aristides de Sousa Mendes to be a “Righteous Among the Nations.” In 1986, the United States Congress issued a proclamation honoring his heroic act. Later he was finally recognized by Portugal, when its President Mario Soares apologized to the Sousa Mendes family and the Portuguese Parliament promoted him posthumously to the rank of Ambassador. The face of Aristides de Sousa Mendes has now appeared on postage stamps in several countries.

Read more at the foundation’s page. Here’s a short video on him:

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