Rochelle Simsovic Kashtan was 9 years old in 1940 and living in France when the Nazis invaded. She recalled her parents shoving her, her sister and two brothers into the family car. “We didn’t take anything with us. We had to leave everything.”
Kashtan, now 84, turned out to be one of the lucky ones. Her family received an exit visa thanks toAristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul-general in Bordeaux, who issued some 10,000 temporary exit visas to fleeing Jews.
Sousa Mendes was honored April 19 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington during its annual Garden of the Righteous program, which began in 1992 to honor non-Jews who risked their lives trying to save Jews during the Holocaust.
About 650 people attended Sunday morning’s ceremony, which featured speeches by some of Sousa Mendes’ relatives and those whose families obtained visas, as well as a world premiere of a musical oratorio in honor of Sousa Mendes.
Sousa Mendes (1885-1954) was a Portuguese diplomat serving in France when throngs of refugees fled to the French-Spanish border, hoping to obtain Portuguese transit visas for passage through Spain to neutral Portugal. However, Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s fascist dictator, ordered that no temporary visas be issued.
Following a meeting with Rabbi Haim Kruger, Sousa Mendes decided to disobey Salazar’s orders and began issuing visas to anyone who asked.
He paid heavily for his good deed. Following an administrative trial, he was fired, lost his pension and never worked again. He died in poverty, more than 10 years before he was honored by Yad Vashem, where he was recognized as a Righteous among the Nations. The Yad Vashem project gives that title to “the few who helped Jews in the darkest time in their history.”
“I am sure we owe our lives to Mr. Sousa Mendes,” Kashtan said. “Hardly anybody got out,” not even her aunt and cousin, she said, adding, “We had a car. That made the difference.”
Jennifer Hartog also is thankful. If not for Sousa Mendes, “I would have been born, but I would not have any grandparents, aunts,” she said.
Her father fought in the Dutch resistance, but was captured and spent four years in various concentration camps. Her father spoke about what happened to him, but when it came to discussing the rest of his family, he was mum. “The family lore was, somehow they got out of France to Portugal. Just somehow, there were never any details.”
Her father died 10 years ago, never knowing how Sousa Mendes helped his relatives. But Hartog heard the story after speaking with an aunt, who was 14 when her family drove to Paris, got visas, then drove to a train that took them to Lisbon, Portugal.
“There were six Hartogs on the visa list,” including her grandparents, two aunts, one uncle and a great-uncle, she said.
Gerald Mendes was born three years after his grandfather, Sousa Mendes, died. But he remembers learning of his family history when he was 10.
“I was impressed, the same way I am today,” he said.
He remembered being told that his grandfather knew what he was doing was dangerous but believed strongly in trying to save as many people as he could.
His grandfather told people, “‘I would rather be with God against man than with man against God,’” Mendes said.
There are people in Portugal today who “say he disobeyed orders, and a diplomat should not disobey. They are starting a denial process and are saying the people were not in danger and there were only a few hundred” visas given out, Mendes said.
But that won’t change what Mendes feels about his grandfather’s actions: “I am happy that today he is a hero, and that he helped people. He should be a model of conscience.”