June 1940, Bordeaux, France. A Portuguese consul underwent a moral crisis, resulting in him handing out visas to neutral Portugal to all who asked, allowing somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people freedom to flee from Hitler’s advance. Most of those people were Jews.
After the German army invaded first Belgium and then France, a wave of immigrants traveled on foot, desperate to escape the Nazi net. These crowds included thousands of Jewish people, aware of the Nazis’ hatred of Jews and scared for their lives and families. As France came under Nazi control from the north east of France, the crowds flocked to the far south west, close to the border with Spain. Their aim was simple: to somehow get to neutral Portugal.
The closest city with consulates that could give visas was Bordeaux, but the consul, Sousa Mendes, had been instructed not to give Jews visas without permission from the government. As they flocked in, he watched the Nazi advance in dread for what it might mean for so many lives.
Consul Sousa Mendes had struck up a friendship with a rabbi, Chaim Kruger, and offered him and his family visas to escape to Portugal. But Kruger refused him. He said that he could not leave the thousands of Jewish people trapped in France.
The Consul could not defy orders. He was an educated, upper-class man, honorable and loyal to his country, and he would lose his job and face trial and imprisonment if he gave visas to Jewish people without the country’s consent.
But after a few days of moral crisis, Consul Sousa Mendes told Kruger: 'If so many Jews can suffer because of one Catholic, it's all right for one Catholic to suffer for many Jews.'
His son, Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes, described the scene. "He strode out of his bedroom, flung open the door to the chancellery, and announced in a loud voice: 'From now on I'm giving everyone visas. There will be no more nationalities, races or religions'."
Visas were handed to every person who came into the consulate, and then teams went to the road to the border and handed them out there, too. The crowds of refugees made their way through northern Spain and into safety in Portugal. Many then escaped Europe, taking ships to South and North America both during and after the war.
It is thought that he saved tens of thousands of lives during those few weeks. But the Portuguese government caught up with Sousa Mendes, and he was returned to Lisbon to face trial. He died a pauper in 1954, aged 69, and never knew that he was officially exonerated in 1988 and finally recognized for the hero that he was.