Portuguese Leader Honored for Recognizing World War II Diplomat
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Portuguese President Mario Soares was honored Wednesday night for his government’s recognition of the role played by a Portuguese diplomat in saving the lives of an estimated 30,000 refugees who fled the Nazi invasion of France in June 1940.
Tribute to Soares was paid by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council after a Tuesday ceremony in which Soares posthumously awarded his country’s highest civilian medal on the diplomat, Dr. Aristedes de Sousa Mendez. The medal was accepted by members of Mendes’ family.
The Portuguese leader at the time of the Nazi invasion, Antonio Salazar, prohibited his embassies from issuing visas to Jews, among others, but Mendes disobeyed the order while serving as consul in Bordeaux, France.
Mendes and other family members are said to have handwritten more than 30,000 visas between June 16-18, 1940, an estimated 10,000 to Jews, according to published reports.
The refugees were among hundreds of thousands who fled the German invasion by heading south, hoping to cross Spain to Portugal and then leave Europe.
When Mendes returned to Lisbon, he was fired from the diplomatic service and was never able to find work again. He later died in poverty.
The spokesman for the Portuguese Embassy, Luis Amorim de Sousa, asked why Portugal delayed recognizing Mendes’ activities for so long, said the rightist dictatorship which fired Mendes was in power until 1974.
″Since then Portugal has recovered its democratic dignity,″ de Sousa said. ″It was in the context of this democratic recovery that Mendes has been duly recognized and celebrated.″
Denying reports that no commemorative ceremonies are planned for Portugal, de Sousa said Soares noted at the Tuesday ceremony that he was considering a ceremony in Mendes’ honor in Portugal. He added that the honor paid to Mendes is ″widely known and widely applauded″ in Portugal.
Asked why the medal was bestowed in the United States instead of Portugal, de Sousa said Mendes’ family resides here and that several members of Congress suggested such a ceremony be arranged during Soares’ visit here.
Reps. Henry Waxman and Tony Coelho, both California Democrats, have been particularly active on Mendes’ behalf.
The Christian Science Monitor said this week that officials of the International Committee for the Commemoration of Dr. Aristedes de Sousa Mendez have claimed that pro-Salazar elements within the Portuguese Foreign Ministry do not want Mendes rehabilitated.
De Sousa, however, said Portuguese diplomats have no influence over such decisions.
Soares, who met with President Reagan on Monday, will end his private visit to Washington Thursday following a speech at the National Press Club.
After a day in New York City, Soares will spend the weekend in Providence, R.I., and will receive an honorary degree from Brown University there on Monday.