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New Exhibit Honors a Portuguese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands From Nazis

Aristides de Sousa Mendes lost his reputation and his home. Now the grandson of a man he saved tries to restore both.

Chavie Lieber
August 01, 2013
Eric Moed speaks at the June 20 opening of the pop-up museum exhibit in front of the Casa do Passol.(Max Bartick)
Eric Moed speaks at the June 20 opening of the pop-up museum exhibit in front of the Casa do Passol.(Max Bartick)

Leon Moed was 8 years old in 1940 and living in Antwerp when his family joined hundreds of thousands of refugees in a panicked exodus to flee the invading Nazis. With his parents and two siblings, Moed escaped Belgium by crossing the French border; but leaving France, which Hitler invaded that summer, was not so simple. Yet the family somehow managed to obtain a Portuguese visa, which offered them safe passage through Spain to Lisbon and allowed them to board one of the last ships leaving for the United States.

Moed and his descendants never knew who was responsible for providing the visa, until a phone call in 2012 filled in the gaps in the family’s history: The family’s survival was dependent on Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux, France, during World War II. Sousa Mendes directly defied his government’s orders and secretly issued visas to 30,000 recipients in two weeks to refugees fleeing the Nazis. Approximately 12,000 visa recipients were Jews, and Moed’s family was among the recipients.

After learning about his family’s emancipator, Moed’s 25-year-old grandson Eric, a Brooklyn-based architect, decided to build an exhibit in Portugal in honor of Sousa Mendes. “I’m alive because of this man,” said Eric Moed, “so this story is significant to me, and I want to make it relatable to future generations.” The exhibit is open through Aug. 31 in Cabanas de Viriato, a little town in central Portugal. It sits in front of the former 19th-century mansion of Sousa Mendes, the Casa do Passal, which was seized from the family as part of Sousa Mendes’ punishment for issuing the life-saving visas.

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Portugal was officially neutral during World War II, but its fascist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar was unofficially pro-Hitler. Under his 1939 edict “Circular 14,” he issued directions to all Portuguese diplomats to deny visas to any refugees, especially Jews.

Sousa Mendes was a devout Catholic with 15 children. He came from a noble family with royal lineage, and he had an esteemed career as a diplomat, servicing Portugal at stations all around the world. He had everything to lose. And yet hearing about families getting torn apart, as well as the horrors of World War II, alarmed him. With the help of a close friend and mentor, Rabbi Chaim Kruger of Antwerp, Sousa Mendes disobeyed Salazar and frantically issued visas to 30,000 recipients over a 12-day period in June 1940. Notable visa recipients included Curious George creators Margret and H.A Rey, Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, Vogue creative director Alexander Liberman, and crown-prince of Austria-Hungary Otto von Habsburg.

As a result of his actions, Sousa Mendes was punished severely. Tried behind closed doors, he was stripped of his diplomatic position and forbidden from making a living, and his children were blacklisted from universities and employment opportunities. The Casa do Passal was seized by the bank, where it was sold to cover debts and was eventually abandoned and left to rot. Sousa Mendes died penniless at the age of 68 in 1954.

His one request to his children, who were forced to scatter across the globe for better opportunities, was to restore honor to the family name. His descendants have been fighting for just that ever since. “It was the worst torture for my grandfather to see his children be separated from society and lose their privileges,” Louis-Philippe Mendes, a 53-year-old grandson of Sousa Mendes living in Montreal, told Tablet in a phone interview. “My father didn’t talk much about his life after the punishment, because it was difficult to have a good life until you are 12, and then have everything taken from you. But he did say it was very hard for my grandfather to sit each of his children down and tell them they needed to leave Portugal to have a productive life. He reminded them to fight for justice and to make the story known.”

Sousa Mendes did eventually receive recognition after he died. In 1966, Israel’s Yad Vashem museum recognized him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In his 2001 book A History of the Holocaust, renowned Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer later referred to Sousa Mendes’ efforts as “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.” And long after Sousa Mendes’ death, Portugal dismissed all charges of betrayal and reinstated him as a diplomat in 1988.

In 2010, descendants of Sousa Mendes and visa recipients started the Sousa Mendes Foundation with the mission to preserve his legacy. The organization identifies, locates, and contacts those who received visas from Sousa Mendes. “His story has been buried in Portugal for so many years, but this is a story of national pride,” said Olivia Mattis, the foundation’s president. “It’s come out little by little; we are trying to get global recognition for his courageous effort.” Mattis’ father, and 11 other family members, received visas from Sousa Mendes; they have 60 descendants alive today. “He was a courageous man who rose to the occasion when there was demand. Part of his punishment was to be erased from history, and that is where our work starts.”

Decades after Sousa Mendes worked at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux, a handwritten book containing a list of visa-recipient names, dates, and numbers was found in a hidden cupboard. The Sousa Mendes Foundation obtained a photocopy of the list, Mattis explained, and a research team has since been working to compare the names on the list to a list of boat passengers traveling from Lisbon to New York from 1940 to 1942. The research team then uses White Pages to track down family members living today. So far, the Sousa Mendes Foundation has identified over 3,000 visa recipients; they called the Moed family in 2012, which was the first time the Moeds fully understood how they survived.

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“When I first learned about the story, I felt very touched but also very powerless,” said Eric Moed. “It stayed in my mind a while, and I brainstormed about different ways I could contribute. Eventually I learned about the Casa do Passal, and it clicked that that was something I could relate to since I’m an architect, and my grandfather and great grandfather were architects.”

Moed decided to build a pop-up museum that would share the story of Sousa Mendes’ heroic efforts while also working to preserve a part of Sousa Mendes’ personal legacy. With fundraising money won from a competition through the Unhate Foundation, Moed built most of his exhibit in Brooklyn and had it shipped to Portugal. The exhibit in front of the Casa do Passal tells of the life and actions of Sousa Mendes. It includes 30,000 of his signatures, meant to symbolize the number of visas he distributed, as well as hundreds of photos of refugees he saved. Moed’s exhibit is the first project to occupy the family estate since the bank seized it decades ago. The white, steel structure of the exhibit intentionally contrasts with the dark, tragic story the dilapidated house exudes.

“The whole attempt of this project is to restore what was missing to the Sousa Mendes family, even though you can never repay someone the gift of life,” Moed said. “But it’s important to empower the third generation after the Holocaust to keep the stories going.”

The exhibit’s June 20 opening ceremony drew over 500 participants, including visa recipients, Sousa Mendes’ grandchildren, and representatives from the Portuguese Ministry of Culture. Leon Moed returned to Portugal for the first time in 73 years, and Louis-Philippe Mendes described the introduction of families as a surreal, emotional experience. “Reconnecting with the people my grandfather saved, including Eric and Olivia, is something my grandfather would have been proud of,” said Mendes. “There was an instant connection, one that is indescribable. It is very comforting that there are people in this world who are willing to put in effort to expose the story of my family.”

Moed built the exhibit to travel, and he hopes to have it displayed in other museums in Europe and America once the exhibit ends in Portugal. He also said a main goal of his work was to call attention to the Casa do Passal and its current state—the former family estate has a gaping hole coming through the roof that threatens a collapse of the entire structure. “The Sousa Mendes home is at a dangerous point—a few more winters, and the whole thing could crumble,” Moed said. “The Portuguese government has suggested they would help with the house in the past, but I’m hoping this exhibit will give them a push.”

So far, Moed’s efforts seem not to have fallen on deaf ears. Following the exhibit’s opening ceremony, the Portuguese government has pledged 300,000 euros to restore the Casa do Passal and turn the home into a tolerance museum. And although there’s been talk from the government about contributing to the mansion for 15 years but no signs of action, Mendes said the new pledge was a step in the right direction.

“What my family wants more than ever is to restore the house. For it to be returned as a place of consciousness, to teach others about courage,” Mendes said. “We feel great that the story no longer belongs to just us. This story now belongs to humanity, and that’s how it should be.”


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Chavie Lieber has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Times of Israel, and more. Follow her on twitter @chavielieber.

Chavie Lieber has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Times of Israel, and more. Follow her on twitter @chavielieber.