A good man in evil times : the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the unknown hero who saved countless lives in World War II /

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Main Author: Fralon, José Alain.
Format: Book
Published:New York : Carroll & Graf, 2001.
Edition:1st Carroll & Graf ed.
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Chapter One The Twins of Beira Alta Our story begins in the nineteenth century. In the small hours of the morning of 19 July 1885, Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches was born at his parents' home, Casa do Aido, in the village of Cabanas de Viriato in northern Portugal. His twin brother, César, had come into the world about an hour earlier, and was registered as having been born late on 18 July. The die was cast: César, the serious, obedient and introverted `elder' brother, would always look after Aristides, his outgoing, generous and impulsive `little' brother.     The twins spent their childhood in Beira Alta, a small northern province which is traversed by Portugal's highest mountain range, the Serra da Estrêla, some of whose peaks rise to an altitude of 2,000 metres. `It is one of the heartlands of Portugal,' the Portuguese novelist and journalist Fernando Dacosta tells me. `Its inhabitants possess the quintessential traits of the Portuguese: sensitivity, love of the land, a fondness for authority, and a sense of honour.'     Cabanas de Viriato lies in the centre of a triangle formed by three unusual towns: Viseu to the west, Guarda to the east, and Coimbra to the south. `Haughty Viseu, the former capital of Beira Alta, lives off the produce of the surrounding countryside and is convinced it is the birthplace of Viriatus, the Lusitanian hero who so frightened the Romans,' writes Hélène Gourby in Le Portugal .     Guarda is Portugal's highest town. Reputedly `ugly and cold', it is indeed a rather forbidding and dour fortress, which once kept watch over the border with Portugal's hereditary enemy, Spain, a country described in another Portuguese saying as the source of `neither good wind nor good marriage'.     To the south is the light-filled Coimbra, whose university dominates the upper part of the town. Recaptured from the Saracens at the beginning of the eleventh century, it was the capital of a county which, according to Jean-François Labourdette's Histoire du Portugal , constituted the second political core of the future Portugal, the first being the formation of a county farther to the south, which was dominated by the Mendes dynasty.     Coimbra was the capital of the kingdom in the twelfth century and the starting point of the Reconquista , which gave birth to Portugal as we know it, a country that can justifiably claim to have the oldest frontiers in Europe.     It was in Coimbra, too, that one of the strangest and most beautiful love stories of all time took place: Pedro, son of King Afonso IV, fell in love with Inês, the lady-in-waiting of his wife, Constança de Castela. The king, wishing to estrange the beautiful Inês, had her locked up in the convent of Santa Clara in Coimbra. There she wept so much that her tears gave birth to a fountain of love.     When Constança died in 1345, Pedro joined Inês in the convent and married her secretly. Ten years later, the king arranged for her to be murdered. Pedro rebelled, seized the throne, revealed his marriage and had the hearts of his wife's murderers torn out. Her corpse was exhumed and the members of the court filed past her in a sublime and morbid tribute. This true story is related by Luís de Camões in The Lusiads . It also inspired Henri de Montherlant's play La Reine morte .     The mountainous north, where Sousa Mendes's family came from, was much more influenced by the church than the south of the country. Its peasant families were tied down to tiny plots of land owned by local patriarchs, unlike the migrant farming proletariat of the south. It would be only a slight over-simplification to say that Portugal divides into a conservative Catholic north and a progressive atheist south.     Portugal, as we have seen, has the oldest frontiers on the European continent; history has given it a true homogeneity; and it is one of the few European countries to have an almost perfect linguistic unity. Yet it is indisputably divided into two worlds -- o Mediterrâneo and o Atlântico -- `which are different in every way except for their awareness of belonging to the same nation', as Jacques Marcadé puts it in his book Le Portugal au XX e siècle . In addition to this north-south divide between the two banks of the Tagus, Aquém and Além Tejo , which was created by geographical factors, there are differences between the Portugal of the coast and the Portugal of the hinterland, which were created by history.     Aristides and César de Sousa Mendes came from the landowning, Catholic, conservative and monarchist northern aristocracy. Their father, José was an appeal court judge in Coimbra. According to one of Aristides's grandchildren, 'José de Sousa Mendes was a very just and thoroughly good man, who cared a great deal about the fate of prisoners and turned down all the gifts -- of oil, oranges, wine and chickens -- that his neighbours kept on offering him.' A family photograph of 1900 shows him to be a powerfully built man sporting a black suit and a gold watch chain, who has a good head of dark bushy hair, and equally dark eyes that seem to sparkle like embers.     His wife, Angelina, had the reputation of being extremely strict. For example, when one of her women servants told her she intended to get married, Angelina retorted: `If you marry, you won't work here any more.' The servant did not get married.     On 28 April 1889, less than four years after the birth of César and Aristides, a certain António de Oliveira Salazar was born in Vimieiro, some twenty kilometres from Cabanas de Viriato. His family was of modest means and deeply Catholic. They lived in a single-storey house that gave directly on to the street. António's father was the manager of a landowner's estate.     `The future master of Portugal,' the French journalist Paul-Jean Franceschini wrote after Salazar's death in 1970, `must have been affected by the fact that during his childhood he admired and loved his devout father, and heard him each evening settling the accounts and calculating the harvest of the farm he managed.' Salazar's mother, an extremely pious woman, left such a mark on him that, contrary to Portuguese custom, the young António took her name: Maria do Resgate Salazar.     One naturally wonders whether the young Salazar ever met Aristides or César de Sousa Mendes. He probably did, but from a distance, like any poor young kid who watches the children of the rich go by, with a mixture of resentment and admiration. After all, his father could well have been the manager of the Sousa Mendes estates. The Sousa Mendes family, one of the best known in the region, was closely associated with the history of Portugal. Aristides's grandfather, Manuel Alves de Sousa, was a wealthy landowner. He was descended from the private secretary of King João VI, who left his country and took refuge in Brazil when he thought Napoleon's armies were about to invade Portugal.     Aristides's grandmother, Raquel Augusta Mendes da Gama, whose family possessed a palatial home, was also of rural aristocratic stock.     Aristides's father, José, married the strict Angelina do Amaral e Abranches, a descendant through her mother, Maria dos Prazeres Ribeiro de Abranches, of Viscount de Midões, who came from one of Portugal's oldest and noblest families. Viscount de Midões went to prison during the civil war at the beginning of the nineteenth century because he had defended `liberal' ideas. He was one of those who countered the champions of royal absolutism by calling for a charter to be drawn up.     In connection with the Abranches family, legend has it that a Portuguese knight by the name of Álvaro Vaz de Almada travelled to England at the end of the fourteenth century in order to defend the honour of a lady who had been insulted by `Teutonic' soldiers. He later displayed such courage during the conquest of the town of Avranches in Normandy that he received the Order of the Garter and the title Earl of Avranches. Portuguese pronunciation turned Avranches into Abranches. The two sons of Aristides de Sousa Mendes who as United States citizens took part in the Normandy landings of June 1944 consequently found themselves, so to speak, on home ground.     Finally, to conclude this brief portrait of the family, mention needs to be made of Francisco Ribeiro de Abranches, Aristides's uncle on his mother's side, who was `the king's preacher' -- or pregador régio -- at Alcobaça, one of Portugal's largest monasteries. He was apparently a man of such eloquence that his sermons brought tears to the eyes of the hundreds of people who would come to listen to them. That did not, however, stop him leading a double life: he was married and had a string of children.     Aristides, César and a third brother, José Paulo, who was born in 1895, grew up in the family home at Aveiro and went to school in Mangualde.     A family photograph, taken in the garden at Cabanas de Viriato at the turn of the century, gives a strange impression. It could be the result of that particularly Portuguese combination of sadness and nostalgia, saudade , which gives the fados their flavour, or, more prosaically, of an oversight on the photographer's part. But no one is smiling at the camera. The young José Paulo, who has long hair and is wearing girl's clothes as was customary at the time, is flanked by the imposing figure of his father, José, and his mother, Angelina, who is wearing a long black skirt and a white embroidered bodice. As for the twins, who are dressed in elegant light-grey suits, they too seem to have an infinitely melancholy expression on their faces. Perhaps they are already thinking of going out and conquering the world.     The two brothers entered Coimbra University, Portugal's only such establishment until a faculty opened in Lisbon in 1911. Housed in the former royal palace, it was regarded as one of the centres of European culture, on a par with Bologna, Paris, Oxford or Cambridge. It was then the largest and oldest university in the Iberian peninsula after Salamanca University.     From the Porta Férrea (Iron Gate) to the Paços das Escolas (Palace of the Schools), the décor is majestic. The same is true of the Sala dos Capelos (Hall of Hats), which is decorated with seventeenth-century azulejos , and which is reached by crossing Via Latina, so called because it used to be forbidden to speak any language other than Latin there. Overlooking the hall, which is lined with the portraits of Portuguese sovereigns, is a gallery reserved for women. Needless to say, at that time Coimbra University was attended only by men; women were admitted only in the 1940s.     Important occasions determined the rhythm of student life, rather as at Louvain University, of which Aristides became so fond thirty years later. Students were dressed in fringed black gowns and wore ribbons of different colours, depending on their faculty. The ribbons were burnt in May in the course of the year's most celebrated festival. Aristides and César graduated in law, which was the most prestigious degree, in 1907. Their grades show that for once Aristides had proved himself a better student than César.     Salazar entered Coimbra University the year the twins went down. Like all children from a humble background in the deeply religious Portugal of the time, he was educated at a seminary. His parents wanted him to take holy orders. He was a devout and studious pupil who won a string of prizes in various subjects, but never lost his enthusiasm for theology and, more particularly, St Thomas Aquinas.     In 1908 Salazar gave up the idea of joining the priesthood because he had no deep-felt vocation, but he remained strongly attached to the church throughout his life. He once resigned as a minister and brought down a government for the simple reason that it was considering restricting church processions and bell-ringing.     At Coimbra, Salazar was in the same `republic' (dormitory) as the future Cardinal Manuel Cerejeira, with whom he would later share power -- political power in Salazar's case, and spiritual in Cerejeira's. Cerejeira's path would also cross that of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, though scarcely to the cardinal's credit, as we shall see.     When the ` vermelhos ' ('Reds') burst into the theology faculty at Coimbra in 1910, Salazar protested against the damage caused by their strong-arm tactics. That incident left him with a lasting aversion to crowds. `Where there is order, do not let in disorder' was one of the aphorisms that later featured in an anthology of his thoughts.     After taking his doctorate, Salazar became a professor of political economy. He always inculcated into his pupils a doctrine based on the principles his father followed when doing the estate's accounts: never spend a penny more than you earn. Aristides, César and Salazar were born in a country which, although experiencing a period of apparent political stability towards the end of the nineteenth century, had been through a terrible ordeal. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Portugal was ruined by three Napoleonic invasions. The French, when conquering the country, and the English, when defending it, `lived off it and plundered it systematically, as well as behaving like vandals and stealing works of art', according to Labourdette. There was considerable loss of human life, with a death toll possibly as high as 100,000.     The Napoleonic invasions also explain why the Portuguese showed so little enthusiasm for the `liberal' ideas that the invaders brought with them. `From then on,' Labourdette goes on, `liberalism was tarred with the antipatriotic brash in Portugal, while patriotism long seemed indistinguishable from traditionalism, a fact that greatly hindered any political evolution.'     Another consequence of the Napoleonic invasions was that Brazil severed its connections with Portugal. When the royal court was set up in Rio de Janeiro so as to escape the imperial armies, a mortal blow was dealt to the colonial system: it accustomed Brazil to governing itself. It gained independence in 1822. As for Portugal's economic dependence on the British, it intensified to a point where by the beginning of the twentieth century 70 per cent of all Portuguese exports were going to Britain.     `During the nineteenth century Portugal, `like Spain, was dragged down by social and economic archaisms and fell further behind the rest of Europe,' Labourdette concludes.     César and Aristides de Sousa Mendes, like their fellow scion of Beira Alta, António de Oliveira Salazar, could scarcely have guessed then that they would be directly caught up in the tragic turmoil of twentieth-century Europe. Copyright (c) 1998 José-Alain Fralon.