Above the Post Office in Estoril is the Museum of Exiles (Museu Dos Exilios). The modernist building, built in 1942 is the design of the architect Adelino Nunes. The museum was opened in 1999. We visited the museum in early April 2016.
Walking up a grand staricase, the visitor reaches a circular landing which is put to good use with a semi-permanent display of exile related documents and photos.
The information drawn from data recorded in the Cascais Municipal Historical Archives, includes photographs, diaries, travel documents, hotel registrations and much more.
Between 1936 and 1955, and especially during the Second World War (1939-1945), exiled kings, dignitaries, prominent artists, thinkers, spies, and thousands of others took refuge in and around the Lisbon/Cascais/Estoril area.
A large room with a library and office are off to the side. The main room is laid out to seat 60 people. On the surrounding walls is a display in English and Portuguese outlining just some of the characters who passed through Estoril and Cascais. Most notably perhaps is the Duke of Windsor.
After the German invasion of France in 1940, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor fled first to Biarritz in unoccupied, southern France and then, via Spain, to Portugal, where they rented a villa outside the town of Estoril called Boca do Inferno. The villa’s owner was Portuguese banker Ricardo Espirito Santo grandfather of the Banco Espirito Santo family.
During World War II, Ricardo also hosted the man who would later become Spain’s King Juan Carlos. Ricardo died of a heart attack in 1955.
But of more interest to a social historian is the part of the exhibition that notes the role of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux, France, who rescued thousands of refugees in the spring of 1940.
In November 1939, in a ruling known as circular 14, the government instructed its emissaries not to issue entry visas to Jews without first receiving explicit permission from Lisbon.
Sousa Mendes issued visas contrary to the orders of his government, forcing open an escape route.
After crossing into Portugal, refugees found a temporary haven. They awaited onward destination visas and ships to the United States, Latin America and elsewhere, receiving help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other aid organizations based in Lisbon.
By some estimates Sousa Mendes and his other officials may have issued 30,000 visas, including about 10,000 to Jews. The Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer calls this “the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
The issuing of visas at the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux took place like an assembly-line and involving the participation of Sousa Mendes; his secretary, José Seabra; two of Sousa Mendes’s sons; and two or three refugees.
“One person would collect the passport from the refugee, a second person would stamp it, Sousa Mendes would sign it, Seabra would assign the visa a number, and someone would record the date, visa number, and name in a ledger book.”
Although put on trial and harshly punished by the Salazar government for his action, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was posthumously named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in 1966.
Unable to work because of government blacklisting the family received help from the Judaic Association of Lisbon, which fed the Sousa Mendes family in its soup kitchen.
A father of 14 children, Aristides de Sousa Mendes died on April 3rd, 1954 destitute and in obscurity, at the Franciscan Hospital in Lisbon.
He is recorded as saying, “I could not have acted otherwise, and I, therefore, accept all that has befallen me with love.”
In 1987 a public apology was given by former President Mário Soares to the Sousa Mendes family in the name of the Portuguese Nation. In 1989 Sousa Mendes was recognized posthumously by the Portuguese Parliament with the rank of Ambassador.
I did some research after the visit to the Museum of Exiles and discovered a list documenting some of the people who were issued with visas. I also discovered that the Sousa Mendes Foundation is researching and recording much more about the Jewish survivors.
Yad Vashem official Mordecai Paldiel notes that 3,500 visa recipients have to date been identified by name, and estimates that the actual number could have been “as many as 7-8,000.”
“An important goal of our project is to put faces to as many names as possible. This is especially important in those cases where the refugee was unable to leave Nazi-occupied France despite the visa from Sousa Mendes, and was subsequently deported and murdered. We are aware of other cases where the refugees managed to embark on a ship, only to drown when the ship was torpedoed. We are able to obtain photos of the visa recipients from the Foreigner Files in the Felix Archives; Brazil immigration cards; and the families themselves, if we are in contact with them. The work done by our research team goes beyond a scholarly or educational function to serve a memorial role, as well.”
More details about the research can be found here
If you are in New York, you can visit an exhibit co-sponsored by the Sousa Mendes Foundation, titled “Portugal The Last Hope; Sousa Mendes’ Visas of Freedom.”
It opened April 7, continuing to September 9, 2016, at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16tth street, New York, NY.
When you consider Schindler probably saved 1000 lives, it is surprising that Aristides de Sousa Mendes’ courage is not more widely known.
NB – Julia Cook has written an article that conveys part of the elite splendour of Estoril and Cascais. Well worth a read!
This post is part of the AtoZ Writing Challenge.