HENDAYE, France — They gathered at the bridge, now rusting in disrepair.
A handful of former Jewish refugees and their descendants, now in their late 80s and early 90s, returned last week to the craggy and verdant border between France and Spain, mostly to pay tribute to the largely forgotten Portuguese diplomat who saved their lives in the early days of World War II.
But with Europe in the throes of a different kind of refugee crisis, these former asylum seekers and their descendants also came to highlight the urgent need for action today.
Those who remembered the war as children said they saw themselves particularly in the recent images of suffering youth, such as Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy pictured dead on a Turkish beach in 2015.
In tearful testimonies recounted along the escape path they once followed, from Bordeaux to Hendaye to Portugal, the survivors and their children championed their savior, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, as an example of an individual willing to act on behalf of those in need, at whatever cost.
Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul general stationed in Bordeaux at the time, defied his government’s orders and issued nearly 30,000 transit visas in summer 1940, about a third of which went to Jewish refugees desperate to escape Nazi-occupied France. In return, he was severely punished, was stripped of his diplomatic title and died in abject poverty in 1954, unable even to feed his family.
“Most people are risk averse,” said Olivia Mattis, whose father was among those rescued in 1940. “Sousa Mendes wasn’t.”
In 2010, Mattis, a trained musicologist, established a foundation devoted to preserving the Portuguese diplomat’s memory. It is now jointly managed by the Sousa Mendes family and the families of those he rescued.
“You have to ask yourself whether you would make the same choice,” said Jerry Jarvik, accompanying his mother, Lissy Jarvik, 93, who received a Sousa Mendes transit visa when she was 16. “Would I sacrifice the future of these two?” he said, gesturing at his two daughters.
Holocaust historians say that what distinguishes Sousa Mendes from better-known “Holocaust heroes” — such as German industrialist Oskar Schindler and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg — was the unusual context that surrounded his actions.
Sousa Mendes issued visas in summer 1940, long before he could have understood what Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” would mean.
“It’s not that he knew he was saving people from genocide,” said Edna Friedberg, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “He was saving people from persecution, and for him that was enough.”
When France fell to Nazi Germany in June 1940, Sousa Mendes, then 54, was already a man with problems on his hands: he and his wife had 12 children to raise on a modest government salary, and his mistress, a French pianist, had publicly announced she was pregnant.
Soon, however, those problems magnified, as the bourgeois city of Bordeaux found itself on the front lines of a refugee crisis of unprecedented scale.
After the Germans arrived in the north of France, millions of people — some French and some foreigners who had already sought refuge in the country before its occupation — headed south to safety in still-neutral Spain and Portugal.
To convey the magnitude of this wave of panic, the French still refer to this episode as “the exodus.” The biblical term is hardly an exaggeration: in a country whose population in summer 1940 was no more than 40 million, historians estimate that between 6 million and 10 million people took to the streets, heading south by whatever means.
While many of the French eventually returned home, Jews and foreigners — many of whom had already fled the Nazis elsewhere in Europe — were well aware that staying put was not an option. The Nazi occupation of France would mean the imposition of the Nuremberg laws in Europe’s storied republic of equal citizens.
Consequently, refugees — Jewish and otherwise — soon began to flood Spanish and Portuguese consulates in Bordeaux, Bayonne and other coastal cities, in a desperate search of visas and documents that would guarantee them passage out of France and, eventually, Europe itself.
In that sense, obscure consular officials such as Sousa Mendes became crucial gatekeepers, arbiters of fates.
“Without Aristides de Sousa Mendes, I would not be here. It’s as simple as that,” said Lissy Jarvik, whose Dutch Jewish family had fled to France following the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. “Without Aristides de Sousa Mendes, I would have suffered tortures so grievous and so prolonged that death would have been a welcome relief. Without Aristides de Sousa Mendes, I would have missed out on three quarters of a century.”
Most of the Spanish and Portuguese diplomats with any authority heeded the calls of their governments, which, although technically neutral, still sought to keep out refugees whose presence might jeopardize their standings with Nazi Germany.
Portugal was no exception: António de Oliveira Salazar, its dictator, had issued the infamous Circular 14 directive, which ordered diplomats and consular officials to deny visas to Jews, Russians and other stateless people. Sousa Mendes, however, did not respect the protocol.
In what the historian Yehuda Bauer described as “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust” — larger even than the famous intervention by Schindler — he offered indiscriminate assistance to tens of thousands. Why he did it, given the devastating professional and personal sacrifices he soon suffered, remains something of a mystery.
Some say that a friendship with Chaim Kruger, a Polish rabbi who had fled Belgium for France — and who refused to accept a visa from Sousa Mendes unless he did the same for other Jews — was the turning point.
In a June 1940 letter to one of his brothers-in-law, written during the throes of the refugee crisis, the consul complained of “a strong nervous breakdown.” A few days later, however, he seems to have followed what he understood to be the dictates of his faith. “I would rather stand with God against man than with man against God,” Sousa Mendes said.
While he and his family lived in poverty — eventually being fed in a Jewish-run soup kitchen after the war — many of those he rescued went on to lead prominent lives in the United States and elsewhere.
The extended family of Parisian gallery owner Paul Rosenberg, a legendary dealer of Picasso, Braque and Matisse, escaped to New York thanks to 17 visas issued by Sousa Mendes that summer. The storied Rosenberg gallery then relocated to Manhattan, where versions of it have stood ever since.
Ina Ginsburg, then known as Ida Ettinger, became a powerhouse on the Washington social scene for decades, collaborating with her friend Andy Warhol on well-known articles about what the artist once famously dubbed “Hollywood on the Potomac.” Ginsburg died in 2014 at 98.
Alexandra Grinkrug, now 81, who received a Sousa Mendes visa at age 4, remembers little of that summer in southwestern France, save for the nearby villa her parents rented and the thrill of riding in a large car, then not an everyday occurrence.
Although her family, prominent Russian Jews, ultimately settled in Los Angeles — where her father, a film executive who had produced the 1938 hit “Hotel du Nord,” embarked on a career in the movies — she eventually returned to Paris as an adult, where she is now a painter.
Grinkrug said she was retracing her steps not out of any particular desire to relive the experience but out of a mixture of gratitude and guilt.
“This is to say thank you — and please forgive my parents for not having even known your name.”