“A consul in resistance” (until October 2 at the Aquitaine museum), retraces the “act of courage” of a senior civil servant, a “fervent Catholic” for whom “the values of morality were stronger than the orders”, summarizes Laurent Védrine, chief curator of the museum.
In June 1940, despite the instructions of the dictator Antonio Oliveira Salazar, who prohibited the entry of Portugal to “Jews”, foreigners without “satisfactory” reason and to “stateless persons”, he had distributed visas to refugees, of any nationality or religion, thus saving more than 30,000 people, including 10,000 Jews.
A disobedience that earned him the banishment of Portuguese society.
Dismissed from his post after a disciplinary trial, he died in 1954 in poverty in a hospital in Lisbon at the age of 69. “He died alone, and he died above all in oblivion”, underlines Mr. Védrine.
Sometimes compared to the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who snatched hundreds of Jews from deportation, Mr. Sousa Mendes is experiencing a belated rehabilitation.
He was recognized in 1966 as “righteous among the nations” by the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
Then in Portugal, 20 years later, he was decorated with the Cross of Merit before entering the National Pantheon in October 2021.
Since then, the invasion of Ukraine has given new resonance to the journey of the rebel consul, “a universal model” because “there are still refugees fleeing war, and brave men and women who help them at their risk and perils”, underlines his grandson Gerald Mendes, who lives in Montpellier.
“This exhibition bridges the gap between past and present, it questions us about the reception of refugees and these notions of disobedience and civic action”, adds Laurent Védrine.
– “Race against time” –
Thanks to several documentary funds, the museum retraces these crucial weeks in Bordeaux after the invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and the North of France by Germany, on May 10, 1940.
While 4 million people threw themselves on the roads of exile, thousands seeking to flee Europe flocked to Bordeaux where the French government withdrew on June 14.
Chaos and then his meeting with Rabbi Kruger, who had left Poland, swayed Sousa Mendes. “Torn between the duty of obedience and that of humanity, he will lock himself up for three days before making the decision to disobey”, relates Laurent Védrine.
At the entrance to the exhibition, the “Candelabrum”, a metallic video-sculpture in the shape of a candlestick, symbolizes this inner dilemma.
On the work, designed by the artist Werner Klotz on an idea of Sebastien Michael Mendes, grandson of the consul, screens scroll through images that may have tormented the consul, father of 15 children – his family, his career, the refugees – while a soundtrack sings out the surnames that got the sesame.
“At the end, he signs them on a corner of the table on the street in Bayonne, it’s a race against time”, recalls the chief curator.
Between period newspapers and images of the Pont de Pierre over the Garonne invaded by a human tide, objects loaned by the Sousa Mendes Foundation immerse the visitor in these snippets of life: the teddy bear of a Dutch refugee, stamped passports by the consul, yellow stars…
Like other descendants of visa beneficiaries, scattered around the world, Jennifer Hartog learned of Sousa Mendes’ action only late in 2013, thanks to the foundation’s identification work.
“They didn’t know that Sousa Mendes was doing an act of courage by putting on a tampon,” said a moved Canadian whose family was fleeing the Netherlands.
His cousin from Jerusalem Beatrice Brom tried to find out about his mother’s journey. But “she was simply saying: We were lucky”.