...preserving the past to protect the future...
August 28, 2004
Three great acts of heroism and humility
"I would stand with God against man rather than with man against God."
de Sousa Mendes
by Gillian Cosgrove
As members of a new generation, including yours truly, continue to celebrate the courage and humanity of heroes of the Holocaust nearly 60 years after the Second World War, a big question arises: Exactly what sparks heroism in the face of certain and ever-present danger?
Impulsive heroism, like saving a drowning child or taking a bullet for a loved one, is understandable because it is intuitive and unpremeditated. But consistent heroism over long stretches of time, when faced with the grim, daily reminder that one's life is always on the line, is truly awe- inspiring.
Such heroism lived in the hearts of a handful of men who had the courage to do the right thing, even when expressly forbidden to do so. One such man was Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, in 1940 who issued thousands of visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis, including the family of a young Peter C. Newman, the best-selling Canadian author.
When asked why he did it, de Sousa Mendes said: "I would stand with God against man rather than with man against God."
This "Portuguese Schindler" was later dismissed from the diplomatic corps and died, unemployed and penniless, in 1954. In my column last week, like Mr. Newman, I assumed that he was an unsung hero and that Mr. Newman's upcoming autobiography, Here Be Dragons, would give him recognition long overdue.
As several readers, including Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress and Manuel Azevedo of the Portuguese newspaper Lusitania have pointed out, some two months ago, the Portuguese Catholic community celebrated a mass in all its churches around the world to honour de Sousa Mendes. The moving memorial mass in Montreal was attended by his son, Louis Filipe, who now lives there, and his two grandsons, Geraldo and Luis, as well as members of the Jewish community including Holocaust survivors.
As early as 1987, about 700 members of Toronto's Portuguese and Jewish communities honoured the courage of de Sousa Mendes at a dinner attended by another son, John Paul Abranches.
In 1995, Mario Soares, then president of Portugal, hosted a tribute for more than 50 members of the former diplomat's family, most of whom had fled to the United States after their father's disgraceful treatment by the Portuguese government. Today, de Sousa Mendes is revered as a "Righteous Gentile" at Israel's Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem and a street is named after him in Tel Aviv.
Efforts are underway to save de Sousa Mendes' home in Cabanas de Viriato, Portugal, from the wrecking ball and to establish a museum there.
Great acts of heroism are most often accompanied by great acts of humility. So, it is often decades before these courageous deeds come to light. But it is the measure of moral titans like these that one man can bring entire communities together.
Such was the case of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, but so too were the cases of two little known Italians, Giorgio Perlasca and Giovanni Palatucci.
Perlasca, a meat importer from Padua, posed as a Spanish diplomat in Nazi-controlled Hungary in 1944, to save about 5,000 Jews from the gas chambers and even stared down Adolph Eichmann who wanted to remove two 12-year-old Jewish children from his limousine.
When asked why he did it, he said: "I had the opportunity and I did it."
Perlasca's valour was celebrated by a reception and a screening in Toronto a few months ago of Perlasca -- An Italian Hero, a docudrama about his life, attended by his son, Franco. The sellout event, attended by members of the Jewish and Italian communities and hosted by Gerald Schwartz, CEO of Onex, David Asper, chairman of the National Post, Gord Nixon, CEO of RBC Financial Group, and aviation entrepreneur Walter Arbib of Skylink, raised funds for Jewish and Italian charities. The event was so successful that a second fundraiser to honour Perlasca is planned next spring for New York City, which boasts even larger Jewish and Italian communities.
Meanwhile, a quiet but tenacious effort is underway to achieve sainthood for Giovanni Palatucci, who as chief of police in Fiume, in northern Italy, saved the lives of 5,000 Jews destined for the death camps. He forged documents and visas for them and protected them with the help of his uncle, the Bishop of Campagna. He himself was engaged to a Jewish woman and swept her to safety in Switzerland before returning to his heroic acts.
He was arrested in September, 1944, accused of conspiracy, and deported to Dachau concentration camp where he died five months later.
At a recent screening of a documentary on his life, Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said: "The chief of police could not have been ignorant of the risk: he was too involved in the security mechanism not to realize. He acted knowing that he was moving towards his own sacrifice; for him it was worthwhile to give his life for just one man."
Three stories, three heroes to ponder ...