Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches was born in the town of Cabanas de Viriato, Portugal in 1885. After graduating from Portugal’s centuries-old University of Coimbra with a law degree, Sousa Mendes was deployed to Portuguese consulates throughout the world: Zanzibar, Brazil, San Francisco, Spain, Belgium. In January 1938, he was assigned to the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux, France.
Under Adolf Hitler, Germany invaded Poland the next year, prompting Portugal — trying to remain neutral in the burgeoning conflict that would become World War II — to distribute what was known as Circular 14. The order decreed that Portuguese consuls deny travel into Portugal for refugees fleeing the Nazi-occupied countries in Europe, including Jews.
By June 1940, throughout Europe, millions of people were on the move, trying to stay ahead of the Nazis (who had walked into Paris on June 14, 1940). The streets of Bordeaux, in southern France, became crammed with those trying to make it to the border, slip through Spain and into Portugal, where they hoped for passage to safer places.
“The refugees were running for their lives. The New York Times has estimated there were 6 to 10 million people on the move at that point,” Mattis says. “We’re talking about a catastrophe of biblical proportions. Even more than biblical.”
Knowing what could happen to him and his family if he defied Circular 14, but seeing the terror unfold before him, Sousa Mendes was torn. He offered visas to a Polish rabbi he had befriended, Chaim Hersz Kruger, and his family. But Kruger, who had fled from Belgium, turned down the offer and tried to convince Sousa Mendes to help everyone that he could.
After days of seclusion and prayer, Sousa Mendes — a devout Catholic — decided to act. From a letter he wrote:
I have it all in my hands now, to save the many thousands of persons who have come from everywhere in Europe in the hope of finding sanctuary in Portugal. They are all human beings, and their status in life, their religion or color, are altogether immaterial to me.
With the help of Rabbi Kruger, his own family and others, Sousa Mendes devised an assembly line-like system to stamp and sign thousands of transit visas, for anyone who applied. He traveled in person to a consulate in southern France (and called another) to order diplomats to do the same.
His nephew, Cesar Mendes, described the scene (again, from the Sousa Mendes Foundation):
When I arrived in Bordeaux and approached the consulate of Portugal I noticed immediately that a large crowd of refugees was heading that way. The closer I got to the consulate, the larger the crowd. Since May 10th of 1940 until the occupation of Bordeaux by the Germans, the dining room, the drawing room, and the consul’s offices were at the disposal of the refugees — scores of them of both sexes, all ages, including old and sick people. They were coming and going; pregnant women who did not feel well and people who had seen their relatives die on the highways killed by airplane machine gun fire. They slept on chairs, on the floor, on the rugs.
Tens of thousands of people, including thousands of Jews, were granted visas under Sousa Mendes’ authority. Historian Yehuda Bauer has said Sousa Mendes performed “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
Among those saved was a 7-year-old boy, suffering from appendicitis, fleeing his home in war-ravaged Belgium. His name: Daniel Matuzewitz. He is Olivia Mattis’ father. Matuzewitz is now Daniel Mattis, a retired professor of physics at the University of Utah.
In all, 12 members of Daniel Mattis’ immediate family were rescued by Sousa Mendes. Dozens more that sprung from that original 12 — including Mattis’ daughter Olivia — are alive today because of his actions. And that’s just one family represented among the thousands of people Sousa Mendes saved. “They were hoping for a miracle,” Mattis says of the refugees. “And he was that miracle.”