History I Never Knew: Aristides de Sousa Mendes; and Why We Should All Try to be Historians

Not long ago I came across this story in The Forward. It is about Aristides de Souza Mendes, the “Portuguese Schindler,” as he is called.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes and a life-saving transit visa

Aristides de Sousa Mendes and a life-saving transit visa

I’d never heard of Sousa Mendes before. He was another of those most admirable people of the hellish Europe of the 1930’s – people who did everything in their power, at great risk to themselves, to aid the Jews persecuted by the Nazis.

A diplomat stationed in Bordeaux, France, Sousa Mendes used his official position to provide transit visas to Jews who were fleeing through Portugal to safer countries. Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar had forbidden it; Sousa Mendes did it anyway.

Oskar Schindler and his "List"

Oskar Schindler and his “List”

This article also serves as an important lesson about human history. That lesson: history’s heroes are those whose stories are faithfully recorded and told. But not all of those stories have been told. History is forever incomplete, a work in process. We can all do our part to advance that work.

Until the 1970s, the story of Aristides Sousa Mendes remained hidden. It had been suppressed by Salazar, who ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968. Today, Mendes is rightly regarded as a Portuguese national hero. Salazar? Who the hell cares.

Irena Sendler and the truck she used to smuggle about 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto

Irena Sendler and the truck she used to smuggle about 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto

Sousa Mendes is honored along with Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, Irena Sendler, and almost 25,000 others in the Garden of the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, dictator of Portugal

Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, dictator of Portugal

In this case, the good man finally receives his due. The bad man, prosperous and powerful while on earth, shrinks further into the dark alleyways of oblivion with every passing year.

Avenue of the Righteous in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

Avenue of the Righteous in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

It doesn’t always happen that way. There are millions of stories out there, still waiting to be told. Their heroes and heroines aren’t always the “great people” either. They won’t be in the history books. But they should remain in our hearts.

You don’t need to be a professional historian. You don’t have to write a book. But you can seek out those quiet, unknown heroes. Listen to their stories. And pass those stories on.

One Response to “History I Never Knew: Aristides de Sousa Mendes; and Why We Should All Try to be Historians”

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