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Portuguese diplomat credited with “largest rescue action during the Holocaust”

In 1940, in the midst of World War II, Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued more than 30,000 visas to refugees leaving France. Around 10,000 of them were Jews.

Visa receiver
“I had heard about a Portuguese consul, who was physically present at the border and stamped anything – whether it was a passport or a piece of paper. Or I was told even a piece of toilet paper.”

He did this to save lives; but eventually, he was caught. As a result of his disobedience to the government, he lost his job. 

For years following, he was unheard of in Portugal and in the Jewish and Catholic communities. That's why Robert Jacobvitz decided to continue his legacy. 

Chair of Sousa Mendes Foundation Advisory Council
“[I] knew about and studied about the Holocaust. I had never heard of Aristides de Sousa Mendes. I was just absolutely, as I said, in shock. I then realized that it was my responsibility to help this family regain its visibility, its stature within Portugal.”

The responsibility to share Mendes' story not only affected Robert, who is Jewish, but another of Portuguese origin, who brought the story to the Vatican. 

Sousa Mendes Foundation
“So I sent one letter after another, asking His Holiness the the example of Aristides de Sousa Mendes in June 1940, saving thousands of people, was something good to be spoken of and this year was a good occasion to remind the world of this need to follow our conscience.”

So on the Day of Conscience, the pope especially remembered this courageous man who saved the lives of so many. 

General Audience, June 17, 2020
Around 80 years ago, [he] decided to follow the voice of his conscience and saved the lives of thousands of Jews and other persecuted peoples. May freedom of conscience be respected always and everywhere.

Chair of Sousa Mendes Foundation Advisory Council
“He had everything to lose and nothing to gain by helping the dispossessed. They being Jews, others who were unwanted, political enemies of the AXIS. He really, as a Catholic, a sincere, practicing Christian, understood what his role was in helping those who were dispossessed of their rights and being able to save them from certain death.”

Now the Sousa Mendes Foundation speaks to those that received visas from Mendes, remembering his legacy as the single individual who made the “largest rescue action during the Holocaust.” 

Visa receiver
“I did not know I probably owe my life to him, which I have found out.”

Robert and Joao insist Mendes' story is relevant now, more than ever, as families migrate from war and famine around the world. They recall that most families have been immigrants at one point in their life. Thus, each person has an obligation to help them, just as Aristides de Sousa Mendes did 80 years ago. 

Melissa Butz