What do Huey Lewis’s mother and Salvador Dalí have in common? What links them to Hans and Margaret Rey (authors of Curious George), the imperial Habsburg family of Austria, the founder of Elle magazine, actor Robert Montgomery (father of Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery), and the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg?
All of them and about 4,000 other people were able to escape war-torn Europe because of one man: Aristides de Sousa Mendes. He was the Portuguese consul-general in Bordeaux, France, in 1940.
Hundreds of thousands of desperate people fled Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg when German troops invaded those countries in May 1940. Their ultimate goal was Portugal, where they hoped to catch a ship or plane out of Europe. But they first had to travel to southern France and obtain a visa from the consul.
Bordeaux was jammed with refugees—in cars, trucks, and farm wagons, and on bicycles and on foot. Accommodations and food were hard to find, and so much was at stake. For many, it was literally a life-or-death situation.
Portugal’s dictator, António Salazar, had expressly forbidden his consuls from issuing most visas, including visas to Jews trying to stay ahead of Hitler’s troops.
Sousa Mendes, a career diplomat with a dozen children and much to lose, issued them anyway. He opened a path to freedom for Jews, gay men, writers and artists, and those who had opposed the Nazi regime.
Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer has called Sousa Mendes’s humanitarian endeavors “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust,” yet the late diplomat is virtually unknown in the United States. The sole English-language book about him was published 23 years ago and is the translation of a French volume.
My next book will tell the story of Sousa Mendes and the people he saved. Since I'm living in Portugal, I am able to research his life and career using primary sources.
This is an exciting and powerful story, a particularly important story in a time of growing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
I recently had the opportunity to meet and talk briefly with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa -- all because of my next book project.
It was the last day of a journey with the Sousa Mendes Foundation that traced the route of WWII refugees from southern France into Portugal.
The Sousa Mendes foundation was created to honor former Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Sousa Mendes was the consul in Bordeaux and, against orders, he signed visas for thousands of desperate refugees who needed them to travel into Portugal. The only passenger ships and planes leaving Europe at that time were departing from Lisbon. This diplomat, sometimes called the "Portuguese Schindler," is the subject of my next book.
President Rebelo de Sousa supports efforts to honor the diplomat, and hosted a reception in the Presidential Palace in Lisbon for this group, which included descendants of family members of several visa recipients, descendants of the diplomat, Holocaust educators, and me!
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Liberty Brought Us Here is now available for sale in the gift shop of Henry Clay’s estate, Ashland, in Lexington, Kentucky.
Henry Clay was a US senator, congressman, speaker of the House of Representatives, secretary of state, and presidential candidate. He was also a life member of the American Colonization Society and the organization’s president for several years.
Colonization, the relocation of freeborn and formerly enslaved Black people to Liberia, is a central part of my book. Clay was well-known as a supporter of colonization, and the town of Clay-Ashland in Liberia was named in his honor.
My article, "From the Bluegrass State to Africa: Kentucky and the Colonization Movement," appears in the latest issue of Kentucky Humanities magazine. The article examines the individuals and organizations in Kentucky involved in the "back to Africa" movement.
In Europe, Portugal Living magazine has recently published two of my articles, complete with many of my photos. The cover article for the spring issue, "Obidos: Town of Queens, City of Literature," explores a still lively walled mediaeval city. The summer issue includes "Conímbriga: Portugal’s Largest Roman Ruins." This incredible site has an intact section of a Roman road, intricate mosaics, working gravity-fed fountains that are centuries old, and much more.
Shortly after Liberty Brought Us Here was published, it rose to No. 1 on Amazon's catalog of books on the history of West Africa. The book, which has garnered numerous five-star reviews, is available on Amazon in print, e-book, and audio formats.
When I was researching the story behind Liberty Brought Us Here, I tracked down two sisters who were direct descendants of the man who freed some of enslaved people at the center of the book. One of the sisters shared this scrap of paper with me, a receipt from the colonization society for these newly freed individuals.