RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
During World War II, a Portuguese diplomat saved thousands of lives by issuing visas allowing Jews and others to get out of Nazi-occupied France. Decades after the war, that diplomat's name remained unknown for many years until now. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met up with a group on a pilgrimage to honor him.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can I have your attention?
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: About 50 people are gathered in the sunny courtyard of the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux. From this city in 1939 and '40, Head Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued approximately 30,000 visas to Jews and other stateless refugees. Ninety-two-year-old Lissy Jarvik, who lives today in California, was one of them.
LISSY JARVIK: I'm Lissy Jarvik, and I was a recipient of a Sousa Mendes visa. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here today. I would have no longer been alive 72 years ago.
BEARDSLEY: Jarvik was just 16 when her Jewish family fled their home in the Netherlands. She, like many others, always thought it was the Portuguese government who got them out. Portugal was neutral during the war. But its fascist dictator, Antonio Salazar, issued orders banning Jews and other undesirables from entering the country. Sousa Mendes consciously disobeyed those orders, frantically signing visas day and night just before he was recalled to Lisbon.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How is my voice? Do you hear me?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Very well.
BEARDSLEY: This group of mostly descendants of visa recipients has come back to honor Sousa Mendes and to trace their families' paths to freedom through France, Spain and Portugal. At each stop, there are testimonials. Some read old letters from family members who escaped, but George Helft reaches back into his own memory. He was 6 years old when his family fled Paris as the Nazis entered the city in June 1940.
GEORGE HELFT: It's difficult for me to describe the roads then. But I remember them very, very well - with baby carriages, old cars with mattresses on the roof and six people inside - some people walking, some people with wheelbarrows and, of course, everyone going south.
BEARDSLEY: Helft's extended family got out of France and were able to reach New York. He only recently found out it was all because of Sousa Mendes. When he was called back to Portugal in June 1940, Sousa Mendes was tried, found guilty and dismissed from the diplomatic service. He was stripped of his pension and lived with his wife Angelina in poverty until his death in 1954. Only decades later is Sousa Mendes beginning to get the recognition he deserves.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARISTIDES DE SOUSA MENDES: A REBEL")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking French).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: In 2009, there was a French movie about him. Since 2011, volunteers with the Sousa Mendes Foundation have been able to identify nearly 4,000 of his visa recipients. Retired newspaper editor Rebel Goode got a call at his home in North Carolina four years ago.
REBEL GOODE: From someone who said he was with a foundation - and my first thought was that he was asking me for money. But he brought me up short by asking me pretty quickly if I were the son of Analies Kaufman (ph).
BEARDSLEY: Good says his mother never talked about her escape when she was alive. After the call, he got out her old Dutch passport.
GOODE: And opened up the passport to the center - and immediately the visa was there with Aristides de Sousa Mendes's signature on it. And it was a very moving and chilling moment to see that connection just come forward.
BEARDSLEY: Many members of this group are struck by the parallel with what's happening with refugees around the world today. Visa recipient George Helft ends his testimonial with a plea for acceptance.
HELFT: Forget about walls, walls to Mexico, walls in Israel. Of course, accepting a flow of refugees - there are undesirables. How many? One percent? Think of all the others. Think of the children who are escaping from horrors. We were told the same thing. If you are let into the United States, there will be on that ship Nazi spies. Of course there may have been Nazi spies.
BEARDSLEY: But, says Helft, 3,500 people did reach New York and were able to build happy and fulfilling lives.
MONTAGNE: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Bordeaux.
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