Dr. Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes, Son of Righteous Gentile Aristides de Sousa Mendes,Passes Away in Portugal
Dr. Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes, who helped his father, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, save the lives of 30,000 refugees fleeing the Nazis at the start of World War II, passed away in Portugal on June 30, 2005, after a long illness. He was 85. His father, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, in 1940, when Paris fell to the advancing German army, and Jewish and other refugees fled southwestward to escape into neutral Spain. But the Spanish authorities would not allow refugees to enter Spain without a Portuguese visa. Against the orders of Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar, who had directed that no Jews or other “undesirables” be allowed visas, Sousa Mendes, with the support and assistance of his wife Angelina, and his sons Pedro Nuno and Jose Antonio, issued Portuguese visas “around the clock” in June 1940 to as many refugees as possible, without regard to nationality or religion.
Dr. Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes, who had been the oldest surviving child of Aristides and Angelina de Sousa Mendes, was born in Coimbra, Portugal, on April 29, 1920. He was a graduate of the law school in Toulouse, France. In 1939, when Nazi bombs began falling in France, Aristides and Angelina transported their younger children to the safety of neutral Portugal, and returned to their posting in Bordeaux. Sons Pedro Nuno and Jose Antonio remained in Bordeaux with their parents. In May 1940, the Low Countries fell to the Nazis, and the Nazi army advanced on France as well. Frantic refugees converged on Bordeaux. Pedro Nuno left the consulate regularly to transmit his father’s telegrams to Lisbon, seeking permission to issue visas to these refugees. Week after week, there was no reply.
In a 1987 interview, Pedro Nuno recalled that by June 1940, “Everything was at a standstill [in Bordeaux]: the heat, the impatience of the refugees, the thunderstorms,” the German planes overhead. Aristides fell sick with exhaustion and despair. When Aristides emerged later from his sickroom, Pedro Nuno recalled in a 1986 letter, “He [Aristides] took over the reins and decided to give passage to Portugal to all the refugees without regard for race, religion, or social standing, and to no longer wait for Salazar’s answer to his telegrams. He was now acting according to his conscience.” Aristides, Pedro Nuno, other family members, and several refugees set up an “assembly line” in the consulate to issue as many visas as possible.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes’ acts of moral courage and “disobedience” resulted in his dismissal from the Portuguese diplomatic corps, his public disgrace, and his own impoverishment. Even as the family’s economic situation deteriorated, Pedro Nuno recalled, his father “reaffirmed that he had never regretted his action saving thousands of refugees, and that he would do it all over again, should it be necessary.” Aristides de Sousa Mendes died a pauper in 1954; his wife Angelina had predeceased him. Most of Aristides’ children could not find employment in Portugal, and were forced to emigrate to other countries. Pedro Nuno worked as a lawyer in the Belgian foreign service. After a long career, he retired with his family to Sintra, Portugal.
In 1967, through the efforts of Pedro Nuno’s sister Joana, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was recognized as a Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem in Israel. The long dictatorship in Portugal finally fell in 1974, after a nearly bloodless revolution. Throughout his life, Dr. Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes struggled, as did his siblings, to obtain “rehabilitation” for his father. He met with journalists and biographers who were interested in his father’s case; he once appeared on KPIX-TV (Channel 5) in San Francisco. On March 18, 1988, in the presence of Sousa Mendes family members, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was finally rehabilitated and posthumously honored by Portugal’s Assembleia da Republica. On December 5, 1988, in ceremonies at the Presidential Palace in Belem, Portugal, U.S. Ambassador Edward Rowell presented Portuguese President Mario Soares and Dr. Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes with copies of a resolution passed by the United States Senate honoring the compassionate and courageous acts of Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
This writer, who has worked with others to honor the life of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, visited Dr. Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes and his family in Sintra several times. Pedro Nuno knew much tragedy in his life: the death of two siblings when he was a child, the suffering and death of his parents, the dispersal of his family, and the deaths of three of his children. Nonetheless, he exhibited enormous grace and dignity. He and his wife Maria Adelaide made their guests feel welcomed and appreciated. They both cared lovingly for their ailing son, Goncalo, now deceased. Although fluent in Portuguese and French, Pedro Nuno spoke almost no English; with a kind smile on his face, he listened patiently as this writer expressed herself in halting Portuguese. In all aspects of his life, he was a gentle man.
Robert Jacobvitz, who organized the International Committee to Commemorate Aristides de Sousa Mendes and spearheaded efforts to “rehabilitate” Aristides de Sousa Mendes in Portugal, also visited Dr. Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes. On learning of Dr. Sousa Mendes’ death, Jacobvitz remembered fondly that “Pedro Nuno was the patriarch of the family. What struck me the most was the way he carried himself. He was a tall, elegant man. He had the most striking deep brown eyes I have ever seen. They communicated to me the many events that they had recorded in Pedro Nuno’s life. [When he first met me], he approached me with great vigor and said: “Ah, Jacobvit, it is so good to see you!… I almost cried.”
Joel Neuberg, former executive director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, was also profoundly moved by the courage of Aristides de Sousa Mendes and of his son, Pedro Nuno: “I was very sorry to hear of the death of Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes. When I visited him in Portugal in the summer of 1991, his father had been dead more than 36 years, but [Pedro Nuno] was focused on gaining recognition for his father’s courageous acts and the restoration of his good name in the history of Europe. He deprecated his own role, although certainly the rescue could not have been accomplished without his willing assistance. It was an honour to speak with him (in French). He seemed not at all concerned that his frantic work those days in mid-June 1940 had cost him a position, career, and status [in Portugal]. “Just meeting Pedro Nuno was one of the high points of my life.”
Dr. Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes is survived by his wife, Maria Adelaide de Sousa Mendes, his son, Nuno de Sousa Mendes, four siblings (Sebastian, Teresinha, John Paul, and Marie Rose), and many nieces and nephews. He is also remembered with love by the many other people whose lives he touched.