1940s, Lisbon, and the movie that comes to mind is the classic, Casablanca. It is the destination that conjures images of freedom, escape from the Nazi tyranny. It was the safe haven for Ilsa Lund and Victor Laslo, provided they can actually leave Casablanca. It was also the safe haven for thousands of Jews, desperate to leave Nazi controlled Europe. With the fall of France and the establishment of the Vichy government, the escape route became even more critical. Lisbon was not a destination; it was the transit point to more secure places. What Casablanca does not portray is the policy of the Portuguese dictator, Antonio Salazar. Ostensibly neutral, but very inclined towards the Axis powers, Salazar definitely wanted to limit the number of “undesirables” who were seeking even temporary refuge in Portugal.
Enter Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, who out of his own personal convictions, chose to issue thousands of visas to Jews and others seeking escape. This is the material out of which history is written and movies are made. The movie is, Disobedience, The Sousa Mendes Story, made in France in 2008. It is only now making its way around the Jewish Film Festivals. It is not a great movie – it will never challenge Casablanca or Schindler’s List, but it is an important movie, both because of its historical and human value, and in the way it shows how one person can make a difference.
The movie claims that he issued 30,000 visas; the number, while still significant, is probably a third of that. Perhaps more like Chiune Sugihara (the Japanese Consul in Vilnius who issued about 6,000 visas) than like Oskar Schindler, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was able to use the power of his office to save lives. And like Sugihara suffered the personal consequences for his actions. Both men required supporting casts – their families, their staffs – who may not have always shared their convictions but who came under their influence to do the right thing. The movie clearly reflects the commitment and the bravery of all involved. It is worth seeing when it comes to festival or theater near you – it is engaging, well done, and inspiring.
If Houston, Texas, with a Jewish population of 55,000, can find a recipient of a Sousa Mendes visa, it is likely that most communities will find one or a descendant of one.
As an interesting follow-up, in 2011, a Portuguese made film of his life was produced; it has yet to make it onto the American scene.