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Campaigners are seeking a fitting memorial to a diplomat who saved 30,000 from the Holocaust.
LISBON, Portugal — A crumbling ruin in a remote Portuguese village is a sorry memorial for one of the greatest heroes to have resisted Hitler's plan to destroy Europe's Jews.
Aristides Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux in the spring of 1940, when Hitler's armies poured across France and the Low Countries.
Defying orders from the pro-Nazi regime in Lisbon, he issued 30,000 visas granting desperate refugees an escape route into neutral Portugal.
Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer described his work as "the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
When Sousa Mendes' disobedience was discovered at the time, Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar had him dismissed from the diplomatic service, canceled his pension and disbarred him from practicing law.
Unable to support his wife and 14 children, he was condemned to poverty.
His children were blacklisted, forced to seek education and work abroad. Two of his sons enlisted with Allied forces.
When the grand family home in the village of Cabanas de Viriato was repossessed after the war, Sousa Mendes was forced to live off handouts from a local Jewish association.
He died in poverty and disgrace in 1954.
"His life ended in misery," says Gerald Mendes, a grandson.
"They say my grandmother died from the sadness of seeing her children leave,” he adds. “The regime would not even allow my grandfather to leave the country to be with them."
Six decades later, Sousa Mendes' descendents and those of the people he saved are uniting to turn the ruined former family home into a monument worthy of his heroism.
"That abandoned house is a memorial to Salazar's punishment," Gerald Mendes says from his home in Paris. "The goal is to turn it into a museum of tolerance and memory."
Survivors who escaped the Nazis thanks to Sousa Mendes' signature, accompanied by relatives and members of the Sousa Mendes family, last month retraced their steps from Paris to Portugal via Bordeaux in tribute to the man who was honored as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in 1966.
"I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to reunite these families who last saw each other in 1940 and re-enact the journey," said Olivia Mattis, president of the Seattle-based Sousa Mendes Foundation. "It was very intense, a fantastic opportunity to shine a spotlight on the Sousa Mendes cause."
Mattis' father was seven when he fled south with his parents from their home in Belgium ahead of the German tanks.
In Bordeaux, Sousa Mendes worked day and night signing visas to cope with mass of humanity flowing through.
When the Salazar government stopped recognizing his visas, he handed refugees Portuguese passports. Stories from the time describe his driving to the Spanish border to persuade guards to let people across. Jews made up around a third of those he saved.
"In my family alone there are 60 of us now, that shows the ripple effect of that one act of goodness," Mattis said by phone from Long Island.
"I found out how he and his family suffered only three years ago,” she added. “It stopped me dead in my tracks. I understood the magnitude of how this family had suffered so that my family could live."
The Sousa Mendes Foundation now works with similar organizations in Portugal and France to preserve Sousa Mendes' memory, identify those he saved and collect artifacts that they hope one day will fill the museum.
After the group's visit to Cabanas de Viriato attracted widespread media attention and a rapturous reception from local people, Portugal's culture minister announced that funds will be made available to repair the Sousa Mendes home’s roof as a first step to restoring the 19th-century mansion.
Since Portugal is one of the countries hardest hit by Europe's economic crisis, however, it's not clear when the cash-strapped country will be able to complete work on the home.
Another descendent of Sousa Mendes' survivors, 25-year-old New York architect Eric Moed, has installed a temporary exhibition in the house as a precursor to the museum.
Moed, whose grandfather was a small child when he received a visa from Sousa Mendes, won funding for the project from the UNHATE foundation supported by the Italian fashion group Benetton.
"Unfortunately the home tells only one story now, the tragedy, not the beautiful part of the story," Moed said. "Hopefully when it's restored, it can tell all the chapters."
Moed says he was awestruck upon hearing about Sousa Mendes' role in his family history two years ago.
"It was incredible to know that you owe your life, you and your parents and your cousins and your grandfather and the whole family, owe their lives to somebody else," he says. "I wouldn't be here without Aristides and tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands can say the same thing."
His exhibition is housed in a pavilion covered in 30,000 copies of Sousa Mendes' signature. It tells the diplomat's story illustrated with photographs and mementos from his family and those he saved.
"It serves as a plea to restore the home," Moed says.
Posthumously rehabilitated by the Portuguese government in the 1980s, Sousa Mendes is regarded as a national hero today. In 2007, he was voted into third place in a television poll to select the greatest Portuguese of all time.
However, the vote also revealed how memories of the long dictatorship continue to polarize society decades after it was overthrown by a revolution in 1974 that paved the way for democracy. The dictator Salazar won the poll, while Alvaro Cunhal, a charismatic Communist opponent of his regime came second.
Although he spent much of his later life struggling for justice for his family, Sousa Mendes never expressed regret for his act of defiance.
"I could not have acted otherwise," he once said. "Therefore I accept everything that has befallen me with love.”