Life After Chase: Mariana Abrantes de Sousa
Seeking Recognition for Sousa Mendes, Portuguese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands During World War II, Defying Salazar
Mariana Abrantes de Sousa has spent all but 25 years of her life in her native Portugal – including 11 years in New York with Chase. It was only during her time in New York that she learned of her "hometown hero" – Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the diplomat many now call the "Portuguese Raoul Wallenberg".
In all, Sousa Mendes issued some 30,000 visas, including about 10,000 to Jews, over the period of a few days. This heroic feat was characterized by the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer as “the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.” The diplomat, his wife and their 15 children paid dearly for the rescue, which flouted the directives of António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese wartime dictator.
Ms. Abrantes de Sousa's major volunteer commitment is to help finance a new museum near Beijoz (Beijós), her village in Portugal, in memory of Sousa Mendes.
Ms. Abrantes de Sousa is an economist with degrees from the University of California Berkley and Princeton University and extensive experience as an investment banker and international finance consultant. Born in Coimbra, Portugal, she holds U.S. and Portuguese citizenship and worked as financial controller in the Ministry of Health and Transport, reporting to the Portuguese Minister of Finance from 2006 to 2010. She is also a member of the Portuguese economics association Ordem dos Economists and the Portuguese Institute of Corporate Governance IPCG. She has written articles on credit risk and portfolio management and is a lecturer and conference speaker on credit management, infrastructure project finance, public-private partnerships and public finance.
She worked in Chase's Economics Group from 1975 to 1978. She was a Credit trainee in 1979, and Credit training manager from 1984 to 1986. Mostly she worked in the Western Hemisphere Department, on Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, reporting to either Wolfgang Fenkart-Froschl, Jean Marc Bara or Arjun Mathrani.
A widow, her husband, Afredo de Sousa, was a well-known economist in Portugal and Rector (president) of Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, where she now teaches Project Finance, with a big emphasis on the three lending rationales. She also serves on a couple of corporate Boards, including the Infrastructure Crisis Facility, which finances projects in emerging markets. She was one of the leaders of the bank group that financed the 12-kilometer Vasco da Gama Bridge, where Chase was the advisor. She said that may be the biggest project financed by Chase in Portugal.
And now she is helping organize the CAA reunion scheduled for this October in Portugal.
Despite the commonality of "Sousa" in their names, she is not related to Sousa Mendes, whose last name is pronounced very much like the word "mensch". For those who know the Yiddish meaning, the pronunciation is quite apt: Sousa Mendes was indeed a man of integrity and honor, as well as great bravery.
The following is from a testimonial given by Ms. Abrantes de Sousa, that tells of his remarkable acts of conscience during World War II and how he is being remembered:
I first heard of Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches in 1986, from a Portuguese-American friend who was visiting me in New York. She was living in northern California and had only one other Portuguese-speaking neighbour, John Paul Abranches, the consul's youngest son who was then collecting signatures in a persistent campaign to petition for the recognition and rehabilitation of his father by the Portuguese Government. No, I knew nothing of this man, and no, we couldn't be related despite the similarity of our family names. But when I asked my eldest brother who was living in California if he knew anything of a Portuguese diplomat who had saved thousands of refugees at the beginning of World War II, he answered: "Yes, I know who he was, and you do too. Don't you remember that big house in Cabanas de Viriato that we used to call the mystery mansion, near the Carnaval (Mardi Gras) festival grounds?"
Of course I remembered ! But what an incredible explanation to the mystery of the huge haunted house that my 5th grade classmates and I saw daily from the windows of our school bus. Why had nobody told us about it before? I had many Jewish friends and neighbours in California, Princeton and New York, including some who had passed through Portugal during the war and still spoke Portuguese. Everyone knew about Raoul Wallenberg, but why did no one know about Aristides de Sousa Mendes?
An act of conscience
This oblivion and the house in ruins shows the heavy price paid by Aristides
de Sousa Mendes and his family for choosing to follow his conscience and issuing entry visas to Portugal to all the refugees who besieged the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux in those fateful days of June 1940. The entry visa to Portugal was essential to exit France at Bayonne or Hendaye frontier points because the Franco regime would not otherwise allow the enormous flux of refugees to pass through Spain, which had just suffered a horrible civil war. Having been warned not to issue such visas, but feeling the desperate plight of the refugees, Aristides de Sousa Mendes battled with his conscience for several days.
On June 17th, and with the support of his wife Angelina and his family, he decided to issue visas to all comers, in a marathon effort mobilizing all hands, first in the offices and corridors of the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux and later on the roads leading out of France.
For disobeying the Government order not to issue visas to Jews and other "undesirables", Sousa Mendes was immediately recalled from his post, subjected to a disciplinary process and sacked from the diplomatic service. Prohibited from practicing law, he died in poverty in 1954, and his name was practically buried along with him.
The persecution by the Salazar government extended to his numerous children. Their fate was similar to that of many in the Lisbon Jewish Community, much enlarged with the presence of the refugees, and several of the sons emigrated to the United States and Canada.
His children recorded and publicized these events, writing books and letters, and the reports of the large migration into Portugal eventually became well known and recorded.
But, Sousa Mendes was ostracized and his name and his story were unknown to most of us, a virtual taboo in Portugal until the 1970s. Although Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Authority, recognized Aristides de Sousa Mendes as a Righteous Among the Nations in 1967, it was only in 1988 when the Portuguese Parliament voted unanimously to reinstate Sousa Mendes posthumously in the Portuguese diplomatic service.
Today, Aristides de Sousa Mendes is considered to have undertaken one of the most important individual rescue actions of the war period. It was one of the first major cracks in the "siege" of Europe which made the refugees unwelcome everywhere, as was the experience of the boatloads that wandered from port to port in search of a haven. Thanks to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, it is estimated that more than 30,000 refugees found their first haven in Portugal.
The mystery mansion
The "mystery mansion" in Cabanas de Viriato is an imposing and elegant building, with a mansard roof in the French style and with a lovely view of Serra da Estrela, Portugal's highest mountain. It was the home for the large Sousa Mendes family and many visitors and refugees, including many officials from the first Belgian government in resistance. After his death, his family was ruined and his children were scattered, many had to emigrate. The house was sold at a creditors' auction, the contents dispersed, and over the years it lay decaying, with water coming in through the windows and through an enormous hole in the roof. At one point, the owners developed a plan to create a small hotel, but by then Aristides de Sousa Mendes had been rehabilitated and his family home had become an historic site.
When the Portuguese Government finally reversed its decision, the Foreign Ministry paid compensation for the undue dismissal to his heirs. The Sousa Mendes family chose to use these funds to endow the Fundação Aristides de Sousa Mendes, which it created in 2000. With an additional subsidy from the Ministry, the Foundation was just able to buy back the Sousa Mendes family home with the objective of creating the Sousa Mendes Museum, in permanent memorial tribute to the heroic acts of conscience of a great man and as a center of learning about a culture of peace and tolerance.
Creating the Aristides de Sousa Mendes Museum
The Fundação Aristides de Sousa Mendes is based in Cabanas de Viriato has the mission of rebuilding the Sousa Mendes family home to house the Sousa Mendes Museum. ...
The Sousa Mendes mansion and the nearby cemetery has become part of the tourist circuits and receives frequent visitors, some of them Jews judging from the pebbles placed next to the Sousa Mendes family mausoleum. Although the house remains in ruins, visitors can imagine the grandeur of the house in former times and appreciate the extraordinary location, the greenery of the country roads, and the view of Serra da Estrela, the local gastronomy and the Dão wines. They can go horseback riding in Beijós, they can take the waters in the Termas de Sangemil and Felgueiras, and they can visit Viseu with its historic city center and the Grão Vasco Museum.
Learning from Aristides de Sousa Mendes
Under the repressive Salazar regime which governed Portugal for nearly 50 years, children learned early not to ask inconvenient questions, especially in front of strangers who might feed the information to the feared secret police, PIDE. The taboo is long gone, and today's 5th graders have many opportunities to learn about him and from his example. Fortunately, the Sousa Mendes name was not erased; it is part of the contemporary history curriculum in the schools of Portugal and in many other countries. His story and testimonies about him and about other courageous diplomats who saved innocent lives from malicious persecution can be easily found in various languages on the internet, available to all, part of the Visas for Life remembrance.
When proudly showing me her essay on Aristides de Sousa Mendes, "graded the best in the class", little Susana, a bright 5th grader who goes to the Aristides de Sousa Mendes Middle School in Cabanas de Viriato, reported that she searched the internet and "found and printed 17 pages"! Actually, Sousa Mendes is the subject of several books, many articles and is mentioned in more than 600 websites, though only one is dedicated, please see www.sousamendesfoundation.org.
Exhibit: Portugal, The Last Hope
On view through July 31, 2016 at the American Sephardi Federation's Leon Levy Gallery in the Center for Jewish History (16 W. 15th Street, NYC), a new exhibition commemorates the 50th anniversary of Aristides de Sousa Mendes being posthumously named "Righteous Among The Nations" by Yad Vashem.
Portugal was the “last hope” for those trying to escape Nazi oppression. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux, France, courageously saved Salvador Dali, the authors of Curious George, and thousands of other refugees, in the spring of 1940 by issuing visas contrary to the strict orders of his government.
Sousa Mendes was inspired by Rabbi Chaim Kruger, who refused to accept the visa offered to him until all of the Jewish refugees in Bordeaux were able to escape. Rabbi Kruger’s role in collecting passports and delivering them in batches enabled Sousa Mendes to issue the visas faster and more efficiently. His commitment and courage remain an inspiration.
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Presented by The American Sephardi Federation, Portuguese Consulate-General in New York, The Sousa Mendes Foundation, and the Municipality of Almeida, Portugal with the support of The Museu Virtual Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Turismo Centro de Portugal, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Luso-Americano Foundation, The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, American Jewish Historical Society, and Leo Baeck Institute.