Aristides de Sousa Mendes in 1940
In 1937, the Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar came out with a public denunciation of the Nuremberg racial laws, and a year later the cardinal-patriarch of Lisbon, Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, openly criticized Hitler’s regime. That same year, Salazar ordered the Portuguese Embassy in Berlin to do everything possible to protect Portuguese Jews, and Jewish refugee assistance organizations appeared in Lisbon.
But after Austria was annexed in 1938 and World War II began in 1939, there was a significant influx of illegal migrants coming into Portugal. The country attempted to take measures to to curb the flow of refugees. Transit visas were to be issued only to people with documents confirming a final destination beyond the country – usually in the United States or Canada.
It wasn’t long before Aristides de Sousa Mendes violated this new rule. Soon after he got the relevant dispatch from the Foreign Office, he went against his superiors to issue a visa to an Austrian Jew, historian Arnold Wiznitzer. Despite a reprimand from Lisbon, Mendes again disobeyed the order on March 1, 1940 to get a visa to a Spanish political refugee, the communist Eduardo Neira Laporte, a former professor at the University of Barcelona.
After Hitler’s army invaded France on May 10, 1940, several million refugees made a move for the south of Europe.
The Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux had previously issued just 1,200 visas, but on June 17, 1940, Mendes decided to issue visas to everyone.
Later, he would explain that he was “impelled by divine power.” “From now on, I will issue visas to everyone! No more nationalities, races or religions!” he decided.
The consulate began to issue hundreds of visas every day. The staff was exhausted, and soon began to receive assistance from Rabbi Chaim Kruger, who knew Mendes from Antwerp. The Portuguese Foreign Minister received a note from the British Embassy, accusing Mendes of "deferring until after office hours all applications for visas" as well as "charging them at a special rate" and requiring at least one refugee "to contribute to a Portuguese charitable fund before the visa was granted.” Friends from Lisbon tried to warn consul Mendes of the impending danger, but he always answered: “If I’m forced to disobey orders, I prefer to go against people, not God.”