John Paul AbranchesSon Of Aristides De Sousa Mendes Portuguese Righteous Gentile

In Memoriam

John Paul Abranches who spearheaded efforts to honor and “rehabilitate” his father Portuguese diplomat and Righteous Gentile Aristides de Sousa Mendes passed away in Antioch California on February 5 2009 after a long illness

John Paul was 78 He was the last surviving son of his parents Aristides and Angelina de Sousa Mendes (His full name was Joao Paulo de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches) John Paul was my friend and along with many others I helped him in his efforts I also served as the “archivist” of the International Committee to Commemorate Dr Aristides de Sousa Mendes as described more fully below

John Paul’s father Aristides de Sousa Mendes who had been Portuguese consul in San Francisco California in the early 1920’s was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux France in 1940 when Paris fell to the advancing German army and Jewish and other refugees fled southwestward to escape into neutral Spain But the Spanish authorities would not allow refugees to enter Spain without a Portuguese visa

Against the orders of Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar who had directed that no Jews or other “undesirables” be allowed visas Aristides de Sousa Mendes with the support and assistance of his wife Angelina his older sons Pedro Nuno and Jose’ and Rabbi Haim Krueger issued Portuguese visas “around the clock” in June 1940 to as many refugees as possible without regard to nationality or religion He is credited with saving the lives of 30000 refugees including 10000 Jews [An article in the August 1941 National Geographic Magazine (“PortugalGateway to a Warring Europe”) documents the presence of the many rescued refugees in neutral Portugal]

Aristides de Sousa Mendes’ acts of moral courage and “disobedience” resulted in his dismissal from the Portuguese diplomatic corps his public disgrace and his own impoverishment He died a pauper in Lisbon Portugal in 1954; his wife Angelina had predeceased him

Because of his “disgrace” most of Aristides’ children could not find employment in Portugal and were forced to immigrate to other countries As set forth in the death notice placed by the Abranches family in the Contra Costa Times Feb 8 2009 John Paul was born on January 7 1931 in Louvain Belgium and was raised in France and Portugal With the assistance of Jewish charitable agencies John Paul moved to the United States at the age of 19 He joined the US Army in 1951 and was stationed in Fairbanks Alaska Following his Army stint he moved to San Francisco and met the love of his life Joan (Casey) to whom he was married for 51 years Together while living in Dublin CA they raised four children: Paul (Nelly) Newman CA; Peter Antioch CA; Sheila Queens NY: and Eileen (Joe) Oakley CA all of whom survive him

John worked as an Architectural Draftsman for The Hofmann Company in Concord for many years As his family relates in his spare time John was a big believer in helping others As a member of the St Raymond’s Catholic Church in Dublin CA he was an active participant in the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Chairman of the Vietnamese Refugee Committee in Dublin; he helped many new immigrants to his community learn to read write and speak English But John’s great passion during his entire adult life was to honor and rehabilitate the name of his father Aristides who even after Portugal’s democratic revolution in 1974 remained a “nonperson” in Portugal In 1967 through the efforts of John’s sister Joana Aristides de Sousa Mendes was recognized as a Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem in Israel Despite this honor in Israel Aristides de Sousa Mendes remained largely unknown in the larger Jewish and Portuguese communities and unheralded in his homeland

I met John Paul when I hired his nephew Carlos de Sousa Mendes as a Portuguese tutor in 1985 Carlos told me the story of his grandfather Aristides and introduced me to his uncle John Paul and to John Paul’s wife Joan who became my friends Later that year I traveled to Lisbon and met more of the Sousa Mendes family including Dr Pedro Nuno de Sousa Mendes John Paul’s older brother who had helped their father Aristides issue the precious visas in June 1940 I learned that John Paul had been trying for decades to rehabilitate and honor the name of his father For instance he gave me a copy of an article about Aristides de Sousa Mendes written by San Francisco News CallBulletin columnist Guy Wright in 1961 at the request of a young John Paul Abranches I tried to interest press people in the story but was told that we needed a current news event on which to “peg” the story of Aristides

In early 1986 John Paul and his wife Joan inadvertently created such an “event”: a petition to the new Portuguese President Mario Soares who himself had been a victim of the Portuguese dictator Salazar to rehabilitate and honor Aristides de Sousa Mendes John Paul and Joan set up a card table with the petitions in front of their parish church (St Raymond’s in Dublin CA)

This “event” caught the attention of an Oakland Tribune writer Roland De Wolk whose article (Oakland Tribune March 17 1986) in turn caught the eye of Robert Jacobvitz executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Greater East Bay Robert had not heard of the Righteous Gentile Aristides de Sousa Mendes but he quickly confirmed the importance of Aristides’ rescue efforts with Yad Vashem the Holocaust remembrance authority in Israel Thereafter under Robert’s direction we (Robert John Paul Joan and I) formed the International Committee to Commemorate Dr Aristides de Sousa Mendes Our letterhead was in three languages: English Portuguese and Hebrew It was an act of loving chutzpah

As Robert related in an email to me:
“I realized that the Sousa Mendes family were themselves unidentified victims of the Holocaust and that they had no one in any position of authority either within the Jewish Community or anywhere else to advance their cause: To correct a terrible wrong that had befallen a Man and his family I had no choice as a Jew but to help this family” We all commenced to work full time (in addition to our “day jobs”) on this cause My Portuguese helped me with Portugueselanguage media and contacts Robert contacted the JCRCs throughout the nation where there were significant PortugueseAmerican populations Events joining the Portuguese and Jewish communities began happening all over the US; resolutions were passed in State Legislatures And in House of Representatives PortugueseAmerican Congressman Tony Coelho and JewishAmerican Congressman Henry Waxman also joined the cause Newspaper articles began appearing in the mainstream Jewish and Portugueselanguage press The New York Timescovered the story (New York Times May 4 1986 p 16)

In San Jose CA the Portuguese Tribune took up the cause People whose lives had been saved by Aristides’ visas came forward People and groups from all over expressed interest Our little “international” committee became in fact truly international International attention mounted including in Portugal

In May 1987 Portuguese President Mario Soares came to Washington DC and presented a Portuguese medal to the late Aristides de Sousa Mendes at the Portuguese Embassy I watched in amazement as most of Aristides’ surviving children and many of the grandchildren met all together for the first time in Washington There were happy conversations in Portuguese French and English These were beautiful sounds

The day after the medal presentation we met again with President Soares at the Library of Congress building in Washington where President Soares apologized to the Sousa Mendes family for the wrong done to them and their father during the Salazar dictatorship Robert and I knew that we were witnessing history being properly rewritten On March 18 1988 in the presence of Sousa Mendes family members Aristides de Sousa Mendes was finally rehabilitated and posthumously honored by Portugal’s Assembleia da Republica (its Parliament)

At present time Aristides de Sousa Mendes is honored in Portugal as a hero and humanitarian Schools and streets are named after him In a recent public poll he was voted among the ten greatest Portuguese of all times (New York Times July 25 2007) And he continues to be honored worldwide and is presently the subject of a play that opened recently in London From 1986 until 2005 John Paul Abranches spoke to many groups and at many events throughout the United States and beyond He was fluent in English Portuguese and French John Paul told me once that public speaking was hard for him and that even after many speeches these undertakings were stressful but that he felt a duty to accept each request for a presentation in order to speak on behalf of his beloved father He always made the point that his father should not only be honored but emulated as people continue to need help to survive in the present day

At the Tifereth Israel synagogue New Bedford Massachusetts in April 1987 John Paul said that his father did not want to disobey orders but he could not ignore the tragedy that was befalling he Jews His father had taken his own children to the safety of Portugal earlier and he felt that he could not deny the same opportunity to the fleeing refugees

What the example of Aristides de Sousa Mendes shows us that each person can make a difference by doing what is morally right irrespective of the consequences That is the only way to prevent human injustice and genocide

In addition to his four children John also leaves behind four grandchildren two sisters Teresinha Swec and Marie Rose Faure many beloved nieces nephews and inlaws and many dear friends

May his memory be a blessing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *