Aristides de Sousa Mendes' formal portrait, 1940. Photo courtesy of Olivia Mattis.
View All News

JAN 15, 2016

Celebrating Aristides de Sousa Mendes, diplomat and Holocaust hero, who saved 10,000 Jews

By Tom Tugend, Jewish Journal.

Los Angeles Jews will celebrate the life and moral courage of a devout Catholic beginning Jan. 22, with the world premiere of an oratorio, an exhibition, film screenings and a memorial service.

The honoree is the late diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who in 1940, while serving as Portugal’s consul general in Bordeaux, France, saved the lives of some 10,000 Jewish refugees by issuing entry visas to his country.

He did so in defiance of his government and paid for his humanitarian disobedience by losing his position and standing and dying in poverty.

Descendants of some of these Jews, and of the 20,000 non-Jews similarly saved by Sousa Mendes, will be among those in attendance at a series of special events organized by the Sousa Foundation coinciding with the week featuring International Holocaust Memorial Day.

On Jan.  24 at 3 p.m., American Jewish University will host the world premiere of the oratorio “Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides,” composed by Neely Bruce and produced by Marilyn Ziering.

“Circular 14” refers to an order issued by Portuguese wartime dictator Antonio Salazar to deny visas to all refugees seeking to escape Nazi-occupied Europe by way of Portugal.

The concert will feature artists from Los Angeles Opera, with actor Michael Gill of TV’s “House of Cards” as narrator.

“Aristides de Sousa Mendes was one of the genuine heroes of the Holocaust, a diplomat whose deeds made all the difference between life and death,” noted Michael Berenbaum, director of the AJU’s Sigi Ziering Institute. “A musical presentation of the man provides us with a brilliant tool to understand human decency and to celebrate a man who acted with nobility and moral clarity.”

In parallel, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) in Pacific Park is presenting the exhibition “Visas to Freedom: Aristides de Sousa Mendes and the Refugees of World War II,” opening Jan. 22 and continuing through March 1. Admission is free.

The exhibition emphasizes Sousa Mendes’ time in California. He served as Portugal’s consul general in San Francisco in the 1920s, and some of his children were born or settled in the state.

LAMOTH will also host screenings of two films on Jan. 23, starting with “With God Against Man” at 11 a.m.  The title refers to the diplomat’s statement when punished by his government: “I would rather stand with God against man than with man against God.”

“Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story” will screen at the museum at 2 p.m. Tickets for each of the screenings are $5 and are available at the door.

In addition, LAMOTH will host a memorial service and reception on Jan. 24. Among the speakers will be Sebastian Mendes, a grandson of the diplomat; Lissy Jarvik, who received a life-saving visa in 1940, and LAMOTH executive director Samara Hutman. The event is by invitation only.

Sousa Mendes died in 1954, and, 12 years later, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem named him as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” said Olivia Mattis, president of the foundation bearing the diplomat’s name. Twelve members of her paternal family were saved through Sousa Mendes’ intercession.

In 2013, descendants of the original visa recipients made a pilgrimage to Sousa Mendes’ hometown in Portugal. In an article on the visit, the New York Times reported that although only 10,000 of the 30,000 refugees saved by the diplomat were Jewish, “almost all the participants at the pilgrimage were Jews.

“However, Mr. Sousa Mendes was a Roman Catholic, who fathered 15 children,” the article continued and quoted Lee Sterling, one of the visitors from California, saying the diplomat, “made no distinction between religions and whether people were rich or poor.”

Canadian Jennifer Hartog, another pilgrimage member, observed, “You hear about people who argued that they couldn’t help because it was wartime, and they had their own family to worry about. But here was a man with a career, a wife and an incredible amount of children who certainly did something for others.”

For tickets to the oratorio “Circular 14,” phone (310) 440-1572, or access www.tiny.cc/smf.

To read the article in the Jewish Journal, click here.