"The Schindler Syndrome"
by Gad Nahshon
In the last decade one can find the evolving of a new tendency in the realm of the Holocaust's market: "The Schindler Syndrome." It is the publication of books or the production of films about the life of righteous gentiles. As in the case of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party, who saved Jews from death the heroes of rescue were recognized by the Israeli 'Yad Vashem,' and then they have been forgotten. But, recently, as a miracle, these heroes of rescue Gentiles who saved Jews or tried to save Jews had a 'comeback.' Of course, we should learn about their altruism. Their human behavior in the Nazi inferno should be integrated into our educational system. They should have a project in the U.N. They deserve it. We must preserve their legacy.
But often it looks like a new wish to show that not all the Gentiles were animals or anti-Semites. We must remember that these heroes were only exceptions and they teach us about the silence of the majority of Gentiles and, of course, about those who helped the Nazis to murder Jews.
Recently, we should bless the governments which try to do justice to the heroes. The irony of history is that these hero, righteous Gentiles, were punished for their courage. Who wanted to save Jews in those years? Furthermore, some rescuers were punished by their free government as if they committed a crime by behaving as a human being should behave.
The Portuguese diplomat Aristides De Sousa Mendes (1885-1954) is a good example of this irony of history. His government punished him for saving thousands of Jewish refugees in 1940. Jose Alain Fralon decided to write a biography of Sousa Mendes: A Good Man in Evil Times (Carrol and Graf publishers, MC, New York). Fralon did research and was helped by the children of Sousa Mendes like Pedro Nuno and Marie-Rose Faure.
Since Mendes served in 1940 in Bordeaux, the author also researched there. He was helped by Diana Andringa who produced a documentary about the life of Mendes "The Proscribed Consul." Sousa Mendes, at the age of 55, served as the Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux and there he established a non-stop machine of supplying a visa or passport to every refugee that knocked on his door. He often took his table to the street. He was helped by Rabbi Chaim Kruger.
The story of Fralon is a moving story. He was playing for time in 1940, five minutes before twelve. Then came the Nazis who tried to close the borders between France and Spain. Mendes had to work fast. He knew that a delay meant death for the Jews who tried to escape. He took care of these refugees as if they were his own family. He let them sleep in his residence. And he had a family of 15 children. And Sousa Mendes had to fight for these refugees with his own government or the ruler of Portugal, the dictator Antonio Salazar, who declared neutrality in the second World War. He, of course, was under the pressures of Spain. Mendes' refugees had to cross Spain in order to reach Portugal and from there to freedom. Mendes was pressed to stop his mass production of visas or passports by his government's special 'Circular 14' but he ignored it, saving more Jews. Often he was helped by his brother diplomats but at the end he had to go back to Lisbon. And then his foreign ministry punished him. By an order from Salazar he was fired and had to cope by himself with the issue of survival, to provide for a family of 15 children.
All his life Mendes suffered from poverty. He always tried to rehabilitate himself. He failed. Who helped him? The Jews of Lisbon. One day at lunch in a Jewish free public kitchen he said: "All of us are refugees." It is un-believable but he was punished because he disobeyed inhuman regulations. Fralon described the emotional suffering of this man who saved his own country from shame. Today, his country is proud to promote his legacy. The Portugese parliament honored him. He was completely rehabilitated years after his 1954 death. Israel was the first country to honor this righteous Gentile. On Feb. 21, 1961, a tree was planted in honor of Sousa Mendes in the Garden of the Righteous Gentiles in Jerusalem. Only on March 13, 1988 did Portugal rehabilitate this great human being. And even then the initiative came from the Sousa Mendes family. One of the children wrote a book about his father's activities Flight Through Hell, and he wrote: "I am proud of the fact that I was lucky enough to have such a man as my father."
Some of the refugees who were saved by Mendes wrote about him and expressed their admiration. He saved at least 10,000 Jews. In 1967 Yad Vashem honored Mendes again by producing a special Sousa Mendes Commemorative Medallion. And on May 29, 1994 the City of Bordeaux paid Sousa Mendes the tribute which he deserved. Mario Soares then the Portuguese President and other dignitaries attended the ceremony and a plaque was unveiled.
Let's hope that the story of Sousa Mendes will be integrated into the Portuguese educational system so that his own people will be aware of his legacy and not just his family, I mean those who were saved by him and their future generations. And we must learn more about his motives, sources of altruism. As human beings we would like to know more about his motives. Why he had this kind of 'altruistic impulse' in a situation in which other people or diplomats looked the other way.
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