Thursday, June 6, 2013

"The Consul of Bordeaux"

Photo: Luxemburger Wort /
Last night, Grand Duke Henri and Grand Duchess Maria Teresa attended the Luxembourgish premiere of the film "The Consul of Bordeaux" at the Utopolis cinema in Kirchberg as part of a series of screenings of Portuguese films organised by the Embassy of Portugal to the Grand Duchy in collaboration with Camões I, a Portuguese Cultural Centre in Luxembourg. 

The film tells the story of a man who saved the lives of about 30,000 refugees during World War II in only a week by frantically granting them visas. Among those receiving visas were no other than Grand Duchess Charlotte, her husband Prince Felix and their children Hereditary Grand Duke Jean, Princess Elisabeth, Princess Marie-Adelaide, Princess Marie-Gabrielle, Prince Charles and Princess Alix as well as Grand Duchess Maria Ana.

The man is, of course, Aristides de Sousa Mendes who is sadly largely forgotten these days. He was Portugal's consul-general in Bordeaux, France. At the time of the French capitulation in June 1940, thousands of refugees made their way south in the direction of Spain and Portugal to escape from the Germans. To enter Spain, one needed a Portuguese transit visa as Spain had already prohibited refugees to enter their country. The Portuguese dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, then also decreed that under no circumstances Jews or dissidents were to be granted passage to Portugal.

At first Sousa Mendes only offered to grant visas to his friend, a Polish rabbi, and his family. The rabbi did not accept the offer stating that he could not leave when others were to be left behind. The Portuguese consul-general did not know what to do and after two days of thinking, on 17 June, Sousa Mendes decided to disobey the order given by his government and to issue visas for everyone, regardless of their nationality, race or religion. In the next few days, he granted about 30,000 visas to refugees, among them 12,000 Jews, the Grand Ducal Family of Luxembourg and 17 members of the Imperial Family of Austria.

On 20 June, Salazar ordered Sousa Mendes to come back to Portugal immediately. On his way, he granted more visas to refugees, before being stripped of his office three days later. Another day later, Salazar stated that none of Sousa Mendes' visas were valid anymore.

Sousa Mendes was later stripped of his title as diplomat and his pension was taken away. Furthermore, he was disallowed to practise law, his original occupation, and everyone in the country was forbidden to show him any charity. In 1954, he died in poverty and only in 1988 he was rehabilitated by the Portuguese parliament.

More pictures of the film premiere are located at Wort in Portuguese and on the website of Manuel Dias.

Source: Sousa Mendes Foundation, Yad Vashem, Wort

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