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April 02. 2013 8:54PM

Jewish Film Festival in Nashua will honor efforts of Sousa Mendes

NASHUA - As part of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust and Heroism and Remembrance Day, Rivier University, Temple Beth Abraham and the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire are working together to honor the legacy of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a man who defied his government at great personal consequence to save 30,000 refugees during World War II.

With Yom HaShoah taking place April 7 and 8, the Jewish Federation is hosting its fifth annual New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival starting on Saturday. The film festival will feature Harry Oesterreicher of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, who is presenting a French film about the man who saved his father and grandparents.

Also, on Monday, Rivier University, in conjunction with Temple Beth Abraham, is hosting a question and answer session with Dr. Douglas Wheeler, an expert on Portuguese history during World War II, who has written extensively on Sousa Mendes, and the Holocaust-inspired artwork of Brother Mickey O'Neill McGrath, an artist and author of 10 books.

Sheryl Rich-Kern, a member of Temple Beth Abraham and Chairman of the New Hampshire Holocaust Day committee, said Sousa Mendes was a man who remains universally relevant because he was ready to put everything on the line, "to do the right thing."

Mendes was the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux during WWII when thousands of Jewish refugees escaped to the south of France in hopes of crossing into Spain and then into Portugal.

Despite the fact that the Portuguese government specifically instructed consular officials not to issue any visas to Jews, Sousa Mendes ignored that order. While his disregard of his orders went undetected for only a few days, Mendes issued some 30,000 visas, including about 10,000 to Jews, over the period of a few days.

Reacting to his insubordination, the Portuguese Foreign Ministry ordered the recall of Sousa Mendes and sent two agents to bring him to Lisbon. While traveling to answer for what he had done, Sousa Mendes and the two agents stopped at a Portuguese legation in Bayonne, where many Jewish refugees were being denied visas that would save them from the Nazis.

Despite the precarious nature of his situation, Sousa Mendes, still the formal superior to the Bayonne consul, ordered that visas be granted to everyone waiting in the long line.

Upon his return to Lisbon, Sousa Mendes was summarily dismissed from government service and deprived of his pension and severance benefits, depriving him of the means to support his 13 children.

"He died an impoverished, heartbroken man," Rich-Kern said.

Despite the personal consequences, Sousa Mendes died a hero, Oesterreicher said, and without the courage he displayed, generations of children would not exist and great contributions to society would have been lost.

Curious George authors Hans and Margret Rey were given visas under Sousa Mendes' orders while carrying an original manuscript about a mischievous monkey in their backpack. Along with Salvador Dali, they are just three of the more famous artists to have received passage.

Otto Von Habsburg (the Archduke Otto of Austria) and Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg were among the many members of exiled royal family members and government officials granted visas.

"Today, the Sousa Mendes descendants, along with many visa recipients, have joined together to share this little-known piece of history that demonstrates how individuals can stand up to acts against intolerance and bullying," Rich-Kern said.

'Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story' will be premiered at the Cinemagic Stadium Theaters in Merrimack on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and costs $10 per ticket. To purchase tickets or for more information about the other films featured in the New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival visit www.jewishnh.org.

For more information about the Rivier events, which are free and open to the public, call Rich-Kern at 603-881-7264 or Br. Paul R. Demers of Rivier at 603-897-8537.

bklein@newstote.com


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