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Ski to Sea team honors WWII hero who saved 30,000 refugees

The theme for this year’s Blossomtime Parade in downtown Bellingham is “Honoring our Heroes,” and that’s the idea behind an unusual entry in this year’s Ski to Sea Race.

The race team is called “Equipe Sousa Mendes.” “Equipe” means “team” in both French and Portuguese.

That’s appropriate because the international team came together to honor the memory of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat who saved an estimated 30,000 people, many of them Jews, from the Nazis during World War II by giving them transit visas so they could flee France to the safety of neutral Portugal.

Sousa Mendes did so against the orders of his supervisors, including Portugal’s prime minister, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, and paid the price by losing his job and his pension. He died penniless in 1954, but is now regarded a hero throughout Portugal and other parts of Europe.

“This is a clear case where disobedience was absolutely necessary,” said Sebastian Mendes, an art professor at Western Washington University and a grandson of the diplomat.

Mendes was in France two years ago while on sabbatical and met a cousin who happens to compete in triathlons. Mendes told his cousin about Bellingham and about Ski to Sea.

“It just clicked, we should make a team to honor our grandfather,” Mendes said.

Mendes, 66, will compete in the road-bike leg of the race May 24. The team includes two other grandsons of the diplomat, from Paris and from Montreal, and a great-grandson from Portugal.

Anniversary of heroism

Aristides de Sousa Mendes’ defiance in the name of human rights marks its 75th anniversary this June.

He served in several diplomatic posts before being sent to Bordeaux, France, in 1938 as consul-general. The post placed him squarely in the path of thousands of refugees seeking safety once war broke out and France began to crumble under Germany’s military onslaught.

Spain granted entry to refugees only if they had proper paperwork to reach Portugal. But Portugal’s prime minister issued orders saying visas for Jews and refugees had to be approved by top officials in Lisbon, which effectively closed their path to freedom.

Sousa Mendes, a devout Catholic and the son of a judge, objected to that but tried to work within the system, to no avail. Then, in June 1940, he resolved to issue as many free visas as he could, as quickly as he could. Over the next three days he issued visas in assembly-line fashion, helped by family members and refugees.

When Germans bombed Bordeaux, he fled south to Bayonne, where he continued to approve visas. Portuguese officials moved to stop him, but he left for a small town near the Spanish border, where he dashed off more visas and escorted refugees to the border. He issued more than 1,500 visas overall before supervisors caught up with him.

Formal recognition of Sousa Mendes in Portugal had to wait for Salazar’s death and the country’s turn to democracy. Portugal restored Sousa Mendes’ diplomatic status with a posthumous promotion to ambassador, and his once-abandoned mansion in north-central Portugal is being restored, with plans to turn it into a Holocaust memorial site and a community, cultural and research center.

Generations of survivors

The list of those issued visas by Sousa Mendes includes such famous people as artist Salvador Dali; Hans and Margret Rey, authors of the popular “Curious George” children’s books; and King Vidor, who directed such movies as “Our Daily Bread,” “War and Peace,” and the black-and-white Kansas scenes in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Another recipient was the family of Lissy Feingold, a 16-year-old girl from the Netherlands.

“They literally left the night before the Nazis invaded Holland,” said a son, Jerry Jarvik, a professor of radiology and neurological surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

His mother’s family fled south through France, heard about the renegade diplomat from Portugal, and obtained a transit visa just in time.

‘They ended up getting the last train out of France into Spain,” Jarvik said.

Lissy Feingold Jarvik went on to a distinguished career as a researcher of behavioral and emotional disorders among the elderly. Her husband, Murray Jarvik, did research that helped lead to development of the nicotine patch.

Jerry Jarvik met Sebastian Mendes five years ago during a trip through France honoring the work of Mendes’ diplomat grandfather. They stayed in touch, and when Mendes proposed a Ski to Sea team, Jarvik signed up for the canoe leg on the Nooksack River. Jarvik likely will be joined in the canoe by one of his two daughters or by his son, whose middle name is “Aristides.”

Mendes said that while several members of Equipe Sousa Mendes are experienced triathletes, the team’s goal is to honor his grandfather, not necessarily place high in the standings.

“It’s an unusual way to recognize such a great individual,” he said. “We’re doing it for the cause.”