When visitors enter “Portugal, The Last Hope: Sousa Mendes’ Visas to Freedom,” which opens April 7 at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, they will be face to face with a daughter’s plea.
“Maybe something else could be done about my father’s great humanitarian action, maybe a play, or even a motion picture. My father’s great generosity is worth it,” can be read in a letter sent by Joana Sousa Mendes, in 1959, to an official of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and never before shown to the public. “My dearest wish is to make people everywhere know what my father did for the Jews when they were being persecuted so ruthlessly by Hitler.”
In the late ’50s and ’60s, Joana sent dozens of letters like this about Aristedes de Sousa Mendes. In messages to Jewish leaders, politicians, journalists and movie studio executives, she recalled how her father, Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux when Germany invaded France, provided as many as 15,000 people with Portuguese visas to escape Nazi persecution. He did so against the orders of his own government, which later recalled him to Lisbon, brought him before a disciplinary panel and dismissed him from the diplomatic service. He was stripped of his pension rights and died in poverty in 1954.
Five of those letters, propriety of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, will be on display in the lobby of the Center for Jewish History on West 16th St. Many were unanswered, but Joana received one from a Warner Bros. executive calling the story “extraordinary” and “moving.” The man promises he sent the letter on to a writer, but a show or movie never was made. For more than a decade, all of her efforts were fruitless. It was only in 1966, when Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, posthumously named Sousa Mendes “Righteous Among the Nations,” that he received the first recognition for his acts. The exhibit “Portugal, the Last Hope” commemorates the 50th anniversary of that honor.
“Despite everything that has happened in the last five decades, the fight for his recognition still goes on,” says Luisa Pacheco Marques, a Portuguese architect who first had the idea for the exhibition. “Somehow, his acts are still very unknown around the world.”
Pacheco Marques and Margarida Magalhães Ramalho, a historian, traveled from Portugal to help organize the exhibition, which is hosted by the American Sephardi Federation in partnership with the Portuguese Consulate of New York and the Sousa Mendes Foundation, headquartered on Long Island. Marques and Ramalho are co-authors of a virtual museum about Sousa Mendes, available in English since last year, and they’re also behind a new museum that will open in Portugal in the spring of 2017, “Vilar Formoso – Fronteira da Paz,” in the Almeida municipality, which is lending some video and photographs never before seen in the United States.
“In the last 25 years, especially in the last decade, Sousa Mendes went from being a total unknown in Portugal to a celebrated figure that almost everyone recognizes,” Ramalho explains. “It’s time to do that work outside the country.”
Through posters and dozens of objects, the exhibition tells the story of the refugees and their routes across Europe and introduces the man who, right at the entrance to the Iberian Peninsula, became their last hope. It also shows how he defied the orders of his government embodied in “Circular 14” – which had prohibited the emission of visas to Jews, Russians and stateless persons – risking his career and the well-being of his 14 children.
“When following orders was the order of the day, Aristides de Sousa Mendes refused to be an accomplice, whether on account of expediency or complacency, to monstrous attacks on human dignity,” says Jason Guberman, Executive Director of the American Sephardi Federation. For Guberman, “Sousa Mendes’ stubbornly conscientious and creative footsteps on behalf of freedom” are an example much needed these days.
Some objects, like some children’s toys, are stark reminders of the people saved. There’s a doll from the Belgian Congo that refugee Thérèse Frankfort, 12 years old, carried during her exodus; a stuffed bunny that Ellen Heymans, at age 8, brought with her when she left the Netherlands; and a Portuguese yarn doll, in her traditional garments, that Polish refugee Yvonne Krakowiak, at age 4, received from a Portuguese man during her stay in Figueira da Foz.
“This is not only the story of Sousa Mendes, and his heroic act, but also of the families of refugees and the people of Portugal who welcomed these people for months in a tremendous showing of generosity,” Pacheco Marques says.
One of the three families highlighted is that of George Rony, a Russian cinematographer who got a visa for himself, his wife, and two children. Rony is the author of some of the videos that will be shown in the opening, footage that Ramalho accidentally found in the Lisbon Cinemateca.
In a book Rony later wrote entitled “This, Too, Shall Pass Away,” the last chapter was called “Thank you, Portugal” and Rony detailed the generosity of Portuguese villagers in raising the funds for his family’s travel to the U.S. The money was paid back shortly after the family arrived in the US. Two of Rony’s sons are still alive, living in California, and are in touch with the Sousa Mendes Foundation.
Since December 2011, the foundation has tried to identify all the visa recipients and their descendants, just like they did with the Rony’s children. Thus far, they have identified 3,600 of them, living all over the world, including some famous people, like Salvador Dali and the authors of the children’s book series “Curious George.”
“This is very important work. Many people, when contacted, don’t have any idea of the man who saved them,” explains the president of the foundation, Olivia Mattis, who will moderate a conversation between one of these survivors, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and a granddaughter of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Sheila Abranches-Pierce, at the exhibit’s opening.
Mattis is also a descendant of visa recipients. For seven decades, her grandparents ignored the identity of the man who had signed and stamped their passport. It was only in 2010, when their son, and Mattis’ father, chanced upon the movie “Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story” by Joel Santoni, on a French television channel, that they connected the dots. In the same year, Mattis, a grandson of Sousa Mendes, and a couple of visa recipients started the foundation.
The institution organizes screenings of movies and documentaries, lectures and talks all over the country. In February, they supported the premiere of “Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides,” an oratorio by Neely Bruce, in Los Angeles, and, in June, for the second time, they will organize a pilgrimage along the route taken by some of those who fled, from France to Spain and Portugal, with 45 survivors and descendants and five educators. One of the stops is Casa do Passal, Mendes’ house in north-central Portugal, which was repossessed by creditors after his death, and abandoned. It is now being restored and the foundation hopes to turn it into a museum of tolerance.
“Every time there’s a big event, something with media coverage, there are families contacting us and saying that they, too, escaped through Portugal,” Mattis says. “When we tell them to look for the passports and check what name is on it they find the name of Sousa Mendes.”
Until September, visitors will have the chance to see six original passports. They will be able to notice how the consul’s signature begins, in the spring, with a very elaborate cursive spelling of his full name: Aristides de Sousa Mendes. In the month of June, when the Germans take over France and the Portuguese government tries to bring him home, it becomes Aristides Mendes. It is then shortened to A. Mendes and, in the last few days, right before Spanish police received orders to turn back holders of his visas, the consul is signing only Mendes.
“It’s amazing to see it in front of you,” Mattis says. “You could see his intention in his writing. The time had run out and he was still trying to save as many people as he could.”
Luísa Pacheco Marques remembers a trip to New York, in 2003, when she started doing some research about the consul. She visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage and found that there was no mention of Sousa Mendes in the room dedicated to Holocaust heroes. Shocked, she asked to talk to the director, who immediately offered an explanation. “The truth is that we don’t have any serious research on him that we can use,” he said. “We need that investigation to happen first.”
The architect was taken aback. “I didn’t really have an answer to that. We really hadn’t done our work,” she says. “But now we have done a lot. The museum now mentions Sousa Mendes, I checked it myself, and we are ready to share his example with the world. This exhibition is a first step.”