Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches

In the small village of Cabanas de Viriato, Portugal, on the 19th of July 1885, a baby was born that would become a hero. He was named as Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches. 

After finishing his law degree, he married his childhood sweetheart, named Maria Angelina Coelho de Sousa, and started his career as a consul that would take him around the world. He worked in Zanzibar, Brazil, Spain, the USA and Belgium. After nearly 10 years of service in Belgium, Salazar, the Portuguese President of the Council of Ministers and President of Foreign Affairs, appointed Aristides as Portugal’s Consul-General in Bordeaux, France. This was the  beginning of his remarkable journey that would forever change history.

On June 14th, 1940, during the tumultuous era of World War II, Paris was occupied by Nazis troops, and the Government moved to Bordeaux where Aristides de Sousa Mendes was working. Thousands of people moved south as France was still free. Three days later, France signed the surrender to Nazi Germany. 

Aristides faced an extraordinary moral dilemma. With the advance of Nazi forces, thousands of refugees, including Jews and other persecuted people,  desperately sought to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. Refugees seeking to escape from France needed a Portuguese visa not only to enter Spain but also to continue their journey to Portugal, where they would find temporary or permanent  refuge or leave Europe.

The Portuguese fascist government had issued Circular 14, which imposed stringent criteria  for granting visas, emphasizing the need for thorough scrutiny and careful evaluation of each visa application for foreigners seeking to enter Portugal. Mendes defied the instructions outlined in Circular 14, listened to the voice of  his conscience, and chose a different path that changed history. “ I would rather stand with God against Man than with Man against God” he declared.

On June 17th, Aristides stated that he had been inspired by a divine power and that from that moment forward, he would issue visas for everyone in need. He declared that there were no more nationalities, races, religions, or political opinions. Over three days and three nights, despite being fully aware of the gravity of the situation, he issued thousands of visas to those who needed to flee from persecution.

As the number of refugees seeking visas from Mendes grew exponentially, the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux became overwhelmed. The lines were long and the atmosphere was tense. Mendes, upon encountering the long line of desperate refugees waiting outside the Portuguese consulate, took swift action. He decided to set up a makeshift visa station right outside the consulate. He took his official stamp and signed visas on hoods of cars and scraps of paper. Even though he was defying his government’s orders and risking his career, reputation, and family, he stated that if there was a need to disobey, he preferred it to be an order from men rather than an order from God. His goal was to grant as many visas as possible in the shortest amount of time because he recognized that every life that he could save mattered.

So, despite the pressure and opposition from both his superiors and the Portuguese government, Mendes organized and coordinated efforts to also transport refugees to safety. He loaded his car with refugees and led a convoy of vehicles towards Biriatou, a Franco-Spanish border, a lesser-known and isolated land border where news of the consul’s disobedience had not yet reached. The journey was treacherous and chaotic, with the roads crowded and under constant threat from German airstrikes. The refugees held onto hope. The story goes that as they approached the French border, Mendes stepped out of his car, used his diplomatic status, and engaged the border guards in a heartfelt conversation about the dire circumstances the refugees faced. Moved by Mendes’ plea and the plight of the people, the French border guards allowed the convoy to pass, and with their visas, they were able to continue their journey to safe haven.

When he was called back to Portugal in late June 1940, Sousa Mendes was tried on 15 charges, including violating Portugal’s prohibition on visas for Jews and other stateless people. He was found guilty and dismissed from the diplomatic service. He lost his job, was unable to retire or  find another employment. He lost his house in Cabanas de Viriato, and his children were prohibited from pursuing higher education. The only support that the family  had came from Jewish communities, COMASSIS and HIAS, who provided food for the family and helped some of his children emigrate to the United States and Canada. Arsitides de Sousa Mendes died on April 3rd, 1954,  in poverty and disgrace, at the Franciscan Hospital in Lisbon. He was buried in a Franciscan tunic due to a lack of appropriate clothes of his own.

Despite his heroic actions on behalf of thousands of innocent people, it was only in 1966 that his story began to receive wider recognition. A group fo Holocaust survivors in Israel discovered his selfless acts and initiated efforts to honor his legacy. This led to his posthumous recognition as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in 1966, cementing his place among the most esteemed figures in Holocaust history. Twenty years later, the Portuguese Government officially recognized the actions of Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes. An apology was presented to the Sousa Mendes family, and he was awarded the status of Ambassador and the Order of Liberty medal.

In 2010, the Sousa Mendes Foundation was founded in Huntington, N.Y, dedicated to honoring the memory of the Holocaust rescuer and educating the world about his work.

In June 2016, a group of about 50 people, including visa recipients and their descendents, gathered in the sunny courtyard of the Portuguese former consulate in Bordeaux, France, to pay tribute to Sousa Mendes, the man that made their lives possible. They embarked on a 10-day pilgrimage, tracing the escape route taken through France, Spain and Portugal. At each stop along the way, people gave testimonials, shared stories and read old letters from deceased family members who had escaped.

This is a story that demonstrates the power of individual conscience and the potential impact that a single person can have in the face of adversity.


  • It’s reported that Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued over 30,000 visas to Jewish families during his time in Bordeaux, and because each visa could hold an entire family, the number of lives he helped to save stretches much, much further. 
  • In Cabanas de Viriato, his hometown, there is a museum dedicated to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, which narrates his story and heroic actions. Furthermore, there are numerous memorials and commemorative plaques worldwide that pay tribute to his humanitarian contribution.
  • There are a few examples of films and documentaries that highlight the story of Sousa Mendes:
  • Vistos para a vida (Opto, 2021)
  • L’Héritage d’Aristides, (Patrick Séraudie, 2021)
  • Aristides de Sousa Mendes – un hombre bueno, (Victor Lopes, 2017)

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