Aristides de Sousa Mendes ”Angel of Bordeaux”





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As German troops invaded and conquered Belgium, Holland and then France, thousands of refugees fled ahead of the advancing army.  Sousa Mendes began granting visas to all who asked.  Passports were stamped, reasons given for the visas, and he signed them. The consul was disobeying specific orders and in the end it would cost him his career. It is believed that at least 30,000 people received visas, including 10,000 Jews.


Aristides was born on July 9, 1885, in northern Portugal. Aristides and his identical twin, Cesar, followed in their father’s footsteps and received law degrees. They graduated in 1907 from Coimbra University and both entered the diplomatic corps. Raised in a deeply devout Catholic family, Aristides was to put these values into practice throughout his diplomatic career.

Aristides married his cousin Angelina and together they raised their fourteen children in Spain, California, British Guyana and Belgium. Evenings in the Sousa Mendes household were family events filled with music and concluding with the Rosary before bedtime. 

Unfortunately, these happy times ended in 1934, when the second son, Manuel, dropped dead in front of the family due to a ruptured blood vessel. Several months later, their youngest child also died. In August of 1938, the family moved to Bordeaux, France, where Sousa Mendes was Consul-General.

Soon, the family would be caught up in the events of the Second World War. In the spring of 1940, as German troops invaded and conquered Belgium, Holland and then France, thousands of refugees fled ahead of the advancing army. The refugees jamming the roads were Jews, defeated soldiers, opponents of Nazism, the elderly, the young. These refugees sought safety in neutral countries like Spain and Portugal. The city of Bordeaux, with its port, was a natural destination for thousands of the refugees. However, only the very wealthy were able to afford the artificially high prices for passage on a ship.

The only other alternative was to get a transit visa to leave France and enter Spain and then go on to Portugal; people thought they would be able to get such a visa at the Portuguese consulate. To add to the fear of the refugees, the German Army had no mercy on the crowds on the roads. The refugees were often attacked by fighter pilots who killed hundreds if not thousands. So, the people who survived the attacks arrived in Bordeaux, hungry and frightened.

To better understand the moral predicament Sousa Mendes was about to be put in, it is important to understand the political situation in Spain and Portugal. In Spain, Francisco Franco had been helped by Hitler during the Spanish Civil War. By closing Spanish borders to refugees fleeing Hitler, Franco could avoid joining the war but still express his support for Hitler. Portugal’s premier, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, also followed a policy of strict neutrality but for different reasons. Portugal had a long standing treaty with England and a new one with Spain. If Salazar sided with the English, Spain might invade Portugal. If Salazar sided too heavily with Spain, England might pressure Portugal to join the war on England’s side. Salazar showed his solidarity with the Spanish dictator by following Spain’s policy of not allowing refugees into Portugal.

On May 17, 1940, Salazar sent his diplomats in Europe a directive that no visa was to be granted unless they received special permission from Lisbon. In effect, this policy kept any Portuguese diplomat from granting visas to any refugee.

Throughout May, as France crumbled before the German onslaught, thousands of refugees tried to escape to Spain. Spain would only allow in refugees who had a Portuguese transit visa, so the refugees’ last hope was the Portuguese consulate.

The consulate where Sousa Mendes worked and lived with his family was literally jammed with thousands of refugees.  Without authority, Sousa Mendes was suddenly responsible for the lives of thousands of his fellow human beings. As the crowds kept pouring into the consulate, Sousa Mendes sent hundreds of telegrams to Lisbon requesting visas. Lisbon’s response was silence. Tensions increased as the German Army drew closer to the city. The consulate was full of people, sleeping on chairs and rugs, and Sousa Mendes had orders not to help.

Then, the consul fell ill. For three days, Sousa Mendes struggled, torn between service to his country and duty toward his God. According to his nephew, after the illness, Sousa Mendes got up by a “divine power” (1) and began granting visas to all who asked. The consul was disobeying specific orders and in the end it would cost him his career. But, as he would tell his government later, “I would stand with God against man, rather than with man against God.” (2) The consul set up a work station and enlisted workers.

Passports were stamped, reasons given for the visas, and Sousa Mendes signed them. If refugees had no documents, visas were stamped on pieces of paper. Their work continued day and night and the crowds began to head for the Spanish border. Spain had to honor the Portuguese visas-the refugees were allowed to cross through Spain to get to Portugal but they could not stay.

Once the refugees reached Portugal, they could not be denied entry because the Spanish would not let them back into Spain. The Premier of Portugal was furious; Sousa Mendes had forced Salazar to accept the refugees. On June 19, German planes bombed Bordeaux. The terrorstricken crowds fled closer to the Spanish border at Bayonne where there was a Portuguese consulate besieged by refugees. The staff at this consulate were obeying their orders and not  issuing visas.

Fortunately, Sousa Mendes had authority over Bayonne and immediately began issuing visas. For the next two days, Sousa Mendes signed his name and stamped visas which would save the lives of thousands. When the consul returned to Bordeaux on June 26, he found a cable from Salazar relieving him of his post and ordering him home. As German troops began occupying Bordeaux, Sousa Mendes began issuing Portuguese passports.

Although the passports would not allow people to cross the border, they could prevent people from being arrested and deported to concentration camps.

Once again, he was ordered to stop and return to Portugal. Ironically, Salazar received a great deal of praise for accepting war refugees, a policy he continued throughout the war. Unfortunately, he never forgave the man who began it all. After returning to Portugal, a disciplinary council found Sousa Mendes professionally incapacitated. He was officially shunned and he could neither work nor retire. With no way to earn an income, the family was reduced to poverty. The younger children could not continue their education and the older ones were unable to find work. Eventually, the family began taking meals with refugees at a soup kitchen run by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Shortly before the war’s end, Sousa Mendes had a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. His beloved wife and helper, Angelina, had a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948. She spent the last six months of her life in a coma in a basement apartment in Lisbon. Sousa Mendes survived his wife by six years, never giving up hope that his name would be cleared. On April 3, 1954, he died at a Franciscan hospital in Lisbon with only a niece at his side. It is believed that at least 30,000 people received visas, including 10,000 Jews.

However, Premier Salazar never closed Portugal’s borders to war refugees and it is estimated that one million refugees were able to escape through Portugal because of what Sousa Mendes had done.